After the crisis – Developing a clear vision for Liberalism

The salient finding of Dorothy Thornhill’s excellent report on the 2019 election is that Liberal Democrats lacked an overarching vision and purpose.

Her report finds that “Feedback at all levels of the party … described a lack of clarity in what we stood for and what we would do in power, beyond stopping Brexit. There is still a fundamental belief, indeed passion, for the sentiment expressed in the preamble to the constitution, but this has not been turned into a vision and strategy which guides the whole organisation.”
The current emergency opens a chance to develop a vision that can guide the whole party and provide a narrative for voters to follow. Robert Brown and I try to show the way forward in our new essay “After the Crisis”, now available to read on the Social Liberal Forum website.

In the depth of the Second World War, Liberal thinkers such as Beveridge and Keynes were working on designing a better society after the conflict. We argue that a similar approach is needed now and that the LibDem leadership should establish panels of independent but liberal-minded thinkers to address ten broad questions about building a better Britain. This work needs to be done speedily, so as not to waste the opportunity that is now before us.Our questions include

  • What opportunities exist for new lifestyles that better enable people to develop their potential?
  • How can we deliver a more Liberal, more equitable, more sustainable society where fundamental rights to food, decent housing, medicine, basic income and full opportunity in life are guaranteed – a new Social Contract between government and people?
  • How can we re-shape the economy so that it serves the interests of social justice and rests to a greater extent on productive work?
  • Our new economic system must recognise the interconnectedness of the world. What is the correct balance between internationalism and localism?
  • How can we ensure that the costs of paying for the crisis are met fairly, with those who have the broadest shoulders bearing the greatest load?
  • Why is no effective action taken against money laundering, people trafficking, sex trading, and wholesale drug import and distribution? How can we drive the dark economy out of business?

Our ten questions are not an exhaustive survey of all the issues that will face us when the emergency is past, but we believe they represent a strong beginning. Our essay is intended to be a living document, and we welcome ideas that can help us to strengthen and widen its scope. In particular, we offer it to local parties as a topic for lockdown discussions by Zoom and other means. Several local parties have already held such talks, and have fed new ideas into our process.

Most of all, we hope our essay will lay the foundations for a new Liberal vision and narrative for the party. We have sent it to each of the leadership contenders and await their responses. The party’s recent history shows that we prosper when we generate and communicate radical new ideas. Still, we fail when we attempt to triangulate a stance in relation to the other parties.

We win when we are seen to be radical and different, as we were under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. This essay aims to help discussions that will lead to a new vision and success for the party. We urge members to read it and use it as a basis for local discussion, and we welcome further considered thought.

* Nigel Lindsay is a former Liberal councillor in Aberdeen and a longtime activist in the party, but consider himself an internationalist first and foremost.

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20 Comments

  • Antony Watts 24th Jun '20 - 9:57am

    The first thing we need is a vision. If we cannot, or do not, think for ourselves then maybe this proposal for UK from the EU would help

    1. Pursue fiscal policies aimed at achieving
    – prudent medium-term fiscal positions and
    – ensuring debt sustainability,
    – while enhancing investment.
    Strengthen the resilience of the health system.

    2. Ensure the adequacy and coverage of the social protection system to provide
    – support for all and
    – in particular those most affected by the crisis.

    3. Foster
    – innovation and support human capital development.

    4. Front-load
    – mature public investment projects (hospitals, Climate, EVs) and
    – promote private investment to foster the economic recovery.

    5. Focus investment on
    – the Green and Digital transition, in particular on
    — housing,
    — clean and efficient production and
    — use of energy,
    — sustainable EV transport infrastructures and
    — high speed broadband networks.

  • “not an exhaustive survey of all the issues that will face us when the emergency is past”

    Well, there’s the thing. CoVID won’t be past. Just like Brexit won’t be “got done”.

    The big issues in 5 years time will be CoVID and Brexit.

  • Katharine Pindar 24th Jun '20 - 11:43am

    The essay of Nigel and Robert is impressively far-reaching and itself an inspiring vision, so I would recommend everyone to read it. The specific idea of setting up panels to go into questions in depth is one I hope will be quickly followed up. Immediately, however, our leadership will have the chance of backing a vision and purpose for our party in accepting the proposal for development of a new Social Contract between government and people, which will tackle the acute social ills of our time, including poverty, poor health and social care provision, homelessness, inadequate skills training and unemployment. With the new ravages of the health crisis, and the impending problems of Brexit, we surely need to adopt this overarching theme and develop the strategy to implement it, with the backing of the expert panels Nigel and Robert propose.

  • As someone who first joined the Liberal Party in 1962, and many years later endured the erosion of the radical social liberalism which was so distinctive of the party up to 2007, it is refreshing to read Nigel and Robert’s essay on a pathway forward.

    One of the distinctive achievements of Jo Grimond back in the 50/60’s when I first joined, and which led to a revival of Liberalism for my generation, was to tap into the talents of the very best brains to create a well thought out pallet of progressive policies on which to base a revival. Nigel and Robert have set such an agenda again and they deserve congratulation.

    I hope both the two remaining LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS can engage with Nigel and Robert’s agenda to re-energise the party. If they don’t there are plenty of groups outside the party – such as the Scottish Greens – who will. Failure to engage could be a very final curtain. Liberal ideas will never die, but a party which ought to be the vehicle for them could.

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Jun '20 - 1:44pm

    One of the most significant aspects of our response to the pandemic is that the government didn’t think that the public would tolerate lockdown. In fact the vast majority of people saw the necessity of curtailing their own activities in order to reduce the impact of the virus on the most vulnerable. This was a very Liberal thing to do. Unfortunately the government doesn’t share this view, seeing life as an economic competition which allows a relatively few people to achieve great wealth while others are expected to get along as best they can. If you are vulnerable no one will help you.
    The SLF paper has some great ideas to use political policies to make life fairer, but doesn’t Labour want this too? How do these policies differ from those that Keir Starmer’s party are likely to come up with, except, of course, in the detail?
    We believe in liberty, equality and community but we have failed to emphasise our belief in community, except at local level and that is often seen in terms of devolving power and involving the public in decisions that affect their physical community. The SLF paper recognises that we have lost the glue that holds society together and yet people have been willing to give up so much so that others can live. There have been a lot of references to community involvement here on LDV and many Lib Dems are involved in helping the weaker members of their communities.
    Our belief in community is what sets us apart from the other two parties, but it’s often expressed as an assumption rather than the vision that it is. We want a nurturing community to operate at every level and across every level of society, we don’t subscribe to the two sided division that Labour and Tories do. We recognise that in an inter related society, a community, the value of all component parts should be celebrated, not eliminated. There is no room for ‘hostile environments’ because they undermine the community as a whole.
    When we bring society as community to the forefront of our minds the test that policies must meet is whether they meet the needs of the community to function at optimum level. This will allow a recognition of the values many people believe in, especially the requirement for fairness which the SLD paper calls for. It would be good to have a new Social Contract based on a belief in community politics at a national level.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '20 - 2:58pm

    There are some good ideas in Nigel and Robert’s report. They won’t come to anything, though, if they don’t stop fretting about public debt. For example:

    “Can the public support costs of the crisis and its aftermath be quarantined in some way to avoid the burden of debt crippling the economy and the state finances……” ??

    We can quarantine whatever we like but it won’t make any difference. “Debt” is not an infectious disease. The Government has indeed spent lots of money into the economy. Is this debt? If the Government is the borrower, who is the lender? There’s not been a bond buyer or taxpayer in sight! The Government owns a bank, ie the Bank of England so in effect it has borrowed it from itself.

    Unless the Government starts sending itself threatening letters there’ll be no problem of having to repay. There may however be a possible future inflationary problem caused by it. IF and WHEN the current level of Govt spending starts to cause the economy to overheat then that’s the time to do something about it. Other than this, the debt isn’t like the polio virus. It won’t cripple anything!

    There does seem to be rather a lot of emphasis on how the National Income should be shared out, which is fair enough, but nothing much on what everyone needs to contribute to help create it. If no-one creates it there’s nothing to share out! I was pleased to see Ed Davey move some way in that direction with his suggestion for a Job Guarantee for Green Jobs. I’m not quite sure why we can’t also have JGs for anyone to do other useful things, but maybe that will come too after some discussion.

  • Blimey, I agree again with both Peter Martin and Joe Bourke.

    We really must tackle comparative poverty as a priority amongst both the employed and the unemployed. Zero hour contracts, exploitative employers like Amazon and Sports Direct, a creaking welfare system…. all must be tackled as well as the global tax dodgers..

    Figures released by the National Records of Scotland last week showed that people living in Scotland’s most deprived areas are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 as those in the least deprived areas. The (NRS) reported the death rate was 2.1 times higher in the poorest areas………. and the same is true of the rest of the UK.

    The highest rate of deaths was among “process, plant and machine operatives”.
    Compared to all occupations, health care workers had a lower than average Covid death rate (5.9 per 100,000 population), but social care workers, at 13.6 per 100,000 population, had a higher Covid death rate than other workers……. which again reflects the areas where they have to work.

    There’s a whole agenda and information waiting to be reflected on and implemented in the UN Alston Report on Poverty and Inequality in the UK. Ed and Layla should both read, reflect, digest…… and then campaign.

  • Nigel in his piece also asks – How can we ensure that the costs of paying for the crisis are met fairly, with those who have the broadest shoulders bearing the greatest load? Martin Wolf publised an article last month Why Covid-19 could lead to higher prices
    https://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/why-covid-19-could-lead-to-higher-prices-1.4258108 arguing sensible governments should finance all their debt at today’s ultra-cheap rates-
    “For more than a decade, hysterics have argued that expanded central bank balance sheets are harbingers of hyperinflation. Followers of Milton Friedman knew this was wrong: the expansion of central bank money offset the contraction of credit-backed money. Broad measures of money supply had grown slowly since the 2008 crisis.”
    “But this time it really is different. In the past two months, US M2, a measure that includes demand, savings and deposits for fixed amounts of time, and Divisia M4, a broader index that weights components by their role in transactions, both show large jumps in growth. If one is a monetarist, like Tim Congdon, the combination of constrained output with rapid monetary growth forecasts a jump in inflation. But it is possible that the pandemic has lowered the velocity of circulation: people may hold this money, not spend it. But one cannot be certain. I will not forget the almost universally unexpected surge in inflation in the 1970s. This could happen again.”
    It is an important point. Central bank Money creation to offset private sector debt deflation will support or generate assets price inflation not push CPI over target. It is increased spending on supply-constrained goods and services that generates inflation in consumer goods and services
    Wolf concludes “Sensible governments should finance all their debt at today’s ultra-cheap rates with the longest possible maturities. As and when the economy recovers, they should also raise taxes on those who can afford them.! ”
    Those who can afford them will will be those that have benefited from the asset price inflation created by the central bank interventions.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '20 - 7:53pm

    @ Sue,

    “In fact the vast majority of people saw the necessity of curtailing their own activities in order to reduce the impact of the virus on the most vulnerable. This was a very Liberal thing to do”.

    So you’re to claiming your party’s name is somehow synonymous with virtue? For myself I could say it was a socialist thing to do. But I know full well that many of the people who I might know locally are doing exactly the same as I do, yet they vote Tory. They’re no better or worse. So what’s their angle? Why do Tories display community spirit too?

    Beyond saying that when there is a national crisis people do tend to pull together, and politics tends to be forgotten, I don’t have a complete explanation. Would they say it’s a patriotic thing to do maybe?

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '20 - 8:17pm

    @ JoeB,

    “Central bank Money creation to offset private sector debt deflation will support or generate assets price inflation not push CPI over target”

    Anyone who has struggled to afford ever rising property prices to house a growing family won’t go along with the idea that rents and mortgage repayments should be excluded from the CPI. OK they aren’t totally excluded, but I’d question if they are properly included. Many young people think the only way anyone can afford a family home, unless they are lucky enough be left one, is not actually have a family! We’ve all seen friends and family make that decision.

    In other words rising asset prices are a form of inflation just like rises in the prices of bread and petrol.

    PS The way it works is that the central bank creates money to buy bonds which forces up their price. A higher price corresponds to a lower yield and therefore lower interest rates. Lower interest rates encourages more borrowing which in turn makes buying assets look more attractive and causes their price to rise. A rising price in turn attracts more buyers who wish to profit from those rising prices.

    This may be a short term fix for debt deflation but only at the expense of creating even higher future debt deflation and longer term financial instability.

  • Galen Milne 25th Jun '20 - 8:59am

    A good article that should enable proper consideration about where our Party has to go in terms of determining a revival of our liberal democracy in the 21st century. It’s particularly important at a time following another catastrophic election in the aftermath of Brexit. We are also still in the dark shadow being cast by the pandemic when the UK was clearly in a bad condition and our NHS staff were poorly supported in terms of preparedness. This is a serious time and this paper from Nigel and a Robert is a serious attempt to make us a more serious contender for government again, whoever the new leader might be.

  • While agreeing with much of this article, I am very disappointed to read once again “We win when we are seen to be radical and different,” with the added caveat “as we were under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy.”

    Sadly it is by no means true.

    The fact is people vote for us when we are seen to be relevant to their concerns and most of the ‘radical’ stuff our leading lights come up with (like the right in law for a child to go to the toilet at school) is totally irrelevant to the vast majority of the British people.

    Paddy and Charles helped make us relevant by helping build up our party, and by 2005 that had made us relevant. Sadly that chance was squandered, partly by thinking that being liberal and radical was enough. It isn’t.

  • Charles, in the best circumstances of his state at the time, was a good front man………. but after that ?

  • Jacci Stoyle 25th Jun '20 - 11:52am

    I think this is an excellent article with a social vision that is desperately needed to face the challenges of Covid-19, Brexit and Climate Change alongside the ever increasing gap between rich and poor. Covid-19 may have created an opportunity for us by fracturing the helter-skelter nature of our society and given us a moment to draw breath and ask is this how we should live? I believe that Nigel and Robert have grasped that mettle in this vision. The campaign slogan that encapsulates it might simply be: ‘Making a Fairer Society’ and we should pledge that every Lib Dem policy will have an equality and fairness check to ensure it is not working against this aim. The misery and desperation of our most vulnerable citizens must be addressed as a matter of urgency. I was particularly pleased to see the paper challenging human trafficking and the dark side of our society. With the mass outpouring of injustice over the death of George Floyd, we have seen references to slavery in the press, as if this were a thing of the past. Yet, modern slavery affects 40.3 million people worldwide – more than at any other time in history. Experts have calculated that 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves between the 15th and 19th centuries, yet there are more than 3 times that number living in some form of slavery today. Women and girls make up 72% of slaves and children account for 25% of all victims. About 25 million people are trafficked for labour which includes cleaning our houses, producing our clothes, picking our fruit and vegetables, catching our fish, digging for minerals used in our smartphones and working in tourism, agriculture and construction. Women and girls make up 94% of victims trafficked into the sex trade and sold for sexual services across the whole country. Like our ancestors before us, we are also complicit in the slave trade. As consumers we have a responsibility to challenge where our goods are made and by whom. The sex trade is driven by demand and countries that have chosen to address that by criminalising the purchase of sex, and decriminalising the sale of sexual services, have seen their numbers of trafficked women and girls fall exponentially. A political party devoted to a fairer society must be devoted to the abolition of slavery.

  • Actually David, I think he was more than that, after all Nick Clegg was a good front man for a while.

    Charles actually believed in the values that made us successful, didn’t sacrifice them in a splurge of power and actually, let the rest of the party get on with what it was good at, doing stuff for people and being relevant. He didn’t not imposing his views by diktat against democratic decisions, nor did he bet the house and lose which two of our last four leaders have done.

    I think that is a good list to start with.

  • Sue Sutherland 25th Jun '20 - 12:52pm

    @Peter Martin
    I was referring to the liberal political philosopher J S Mill. Members of the party on here will know of his theories on Liberty, specifically the harm principle. Everyone should have the freedom to do what they wish until the exercise of that freedom causes harm to others. We Lib Dems often think we are out of step with the general population but in this case we were not. I was not laying sole claim to virtuous behaviour.

  • @ David Evans “Actually David, I think he was more than that, after all Nick Clegg was a good front man for a while”.

    Yes, David, you’re correct in that he had the potential to do all of that and more.

    But just suppose you were Alex Ferguson, needing a star centre forward who would never let you down, always be at peak fitness and performance – would you have signed him ? You wouldn’t let natural sentiment and regrets get in the way, would you ? It couldn’t have worked in 10, Downing Street could it ?

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