Author Archives: Helen Flynn

My passion for bold and radical Liberalism reaffirmed, as my time as SLF Chair comes to its end

Last September, Paddy Ashdown said that since the coalition, the Lib Dems had not managed to have even “one big, dangerous idea”.  He said in a blog for Lib Dem Voice:

Unless we are prepared to be realistic about where we are, return to being radical about what we propose, recreate ourselves as an insurgent force and rekindle our lost habit of intellectual ferment, things could get even worse for us.

 It prompted him to launch the Ashdown Prize in March this year, and the winner was announced in June—Dorothy Ford, who proposed an idea on food waste which will be debated at the Autumn Conference.  In a blog on Lib Dem Voice, Caron Lindsay said that though the idea was “worthy”, it was “neither radical or new”.  This dearth of new ideas has been besieging the Lib Dems since 2010, and little seems to be changing.

At the Social Liberal Forum, we have been keeping the flame of new liberal ideas burning since the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories in 2010.  We feel that new ideas and renewal/rethinking of old liberal ideas is vital to being the radical force that Liberalism should currently be and always has been.  

I have been known by my colleagues to have said on various occasions, since I became Chair of the SLF in 2016, that “there has never been a more important time for Liberalism than now”.  I passionately believe this, so as my time as Chair draws to a close, and as nominations to the new SLF council are underway, I am re-affirming the vital importance of new, bold, radical ideas that will keep Liberalism as the relevant and necessary force in British politics that it needs to be.

The book that the SLF published earlier this year, Four Go In Search of Big Ideas, was significant for several reasons: it showed that there are many progressive, liberal people out there thinking radically, coherently and sensibly about what we need to do next as a society; that we do not need to be tribal, but can work with others to generate progressive ideas; and that liberal and progressive thinkers are and always have been the people to move politics forward in this country.

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Kate Pickett to speak at SLF Conference

The Social Liberal Forum exists and campaigns to create a society where everyone has access to the wealth, power and opportunity to enable us all to lead full and rewarding lives, unfettered by social hardship.  We speak for and promote a vision for social justice.  So we are thrilled to announce that Kate Pickett, co author of The Spirit Level and the newly published book, The Inner Level, will be speaking at the annual SLF Conference on 28th July this year.

The Spirit Level, published in 2009, was a highly influential book, going on to sell 150,000 copies.  It demonstrated conclusively the pernicious effects of economic inequality. In more unequal countries, outcomes are worse for almost everyone in areas such as public health, education, obesity and social mobility.

In The Inner Level Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson posit that the growing level of anxiety in our society stems in larger part from increasing social pressures brought about by material inequalities—in effect greater status anxiety.  A recent meta-analysis of studies published in the Lancet Psychiatry concluded that rates of metal illness were higher in societies with larger income differences.  The UK and USA are at the top of the graph on both mental illness and income inequality.

We hope that this link between inequality and the growing tide of mental illness will be one of the focuses of Kate’s presentation at our conference.  However, there is much more crossover between the thinking behind Richard and Kate’s most recent book and the guiding philosophy behind the social liberal movement.  The co-operative model for workers, employee representation on company boards, and an education system that is inclusive and where the professionalism of teachers is respected are also discussed in The Inner Level.

We are sure there will be much food for thought and much to debate at this, our eighth annual conference.  

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The housing crisis – long overdue for some “big ideas”

You can tell things must be getting really bad when even the Conservatives are concerned about the shortfall of affordable houses. Survation recently polled 121 senior Conservative councillors, on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ahead of the government’s publication of its social housing green paper, expected in the next few months.  The poll found 71% were concerned that the £2bn Government set aside for affordable housing in the Autumn Budget will be insufficient to meet the needs of their constituents.

So what solutions do we need?  Alex Marsh, a housing policy expert, has set out some truly radical proposals n the Social Liberal Forum’s new book, Four Go In Search of Big Ideas.  After setting out the commonly accepted “truths” of our current housing crisis, he crucially asks, “Is it all about new supply?  He argues:

A more profound criticism of this approach to dealing with our housing problems is that it is based upon a misdiagnosis. The argument is that if we view the issue in terms of the amount of housing available relative to the number of residents then the country is not suffering from a significant shortage of accommodation. The issue is its distribution .  Some people are occupying a lot more housing than others, many households are squeezing into overcrowded accommodation and others are squeezed out of the market entirely. In this respect the problems of the housing market are in part a manifestation of broader social and economic changes, including changes in income and wealth inequality or welfare reform and increased use of benefit sanctions. We see problems in the housing market, but they are not necessarily problems of the housing market.

It is through these kinds of radical ways of looking at our current problems that we can generate new ideas and new solutions.  And Alex proposes some truly radical liberal ideas—ideas that should be of interest to any true Liberal.  He says: 

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What Liberals need to do for the ‘left behind’

‘Left behind’ is a relatively new term to describe communities in the UK who have, economically speaking, fallen behind the more prosperous parts of the country.  The reasons for this socio-economic phenomenon are varied, but amongst them are: de-industrialisation; the effects of globalisation; and power that is over-centralised to Westminster.

As Liberals, why should we care about the left behind?  Some may argue it is because there were large numbers of voters in these communities, generally speaking, who voted to leave the EU (though whether it was anything to do with the EU is arguable).  Therefore, getting them ‘on side’ would increase our chances of an ‘exit from Brexit’.

However, as Liberals who fundamentally care about social justice, we should now be responding urgently to these communities, as these are the very people who stand to gain the most from Liberal policies.  Liberal values are at the heart of progressive policies that respect and value the individual, regardless of background and personal characteristics, and seek to maximise opportunities for all, so that it is not only the individual who gains, but whole communities and ultimately the country.  By targeting the ‘left behind’ we can move society on more significantly than by targeting any other group.

Paul Hindley, in his chapter in the SLF’s most recent publication Four Go In Search Of Big Ideas, makes an eloquent case for a new system of social rights, that at this moment in time, would give the ‘left behind’ a stake in our society, some dignity, and hope. As he says:

The intractable problem of our political age is: how do liberals and progressives reach out to left behind communities? How do we defuse populism, tackle economic inequality and revive a positive sense of community in the age of Brexit and identity politics? If liberals cannot reach out to the most deprived and alienated communities, to the places that most need social justice, then there will be no meaningful future for progressive politics.

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Latest Social Liberal Forum publication: Universal Basic Income as a tool for tax and benefit reform

At the recent SLF Annual Conference in July, a well-attended fringe session discussed the benefits and drawbacks of Basic Income.

My contention, as Chair of this session, was that we now need to be looking more closely at Basic Income, given increasing robotisation and technological change that will massively shake up conventional work, and given that our welfare system is creaking and needs modernisation. Basic Income is a policy that seems fundamentally socially liberal, and so it seems to naturally deserve attention from the SLF and all who are socially liberal.

Therefore the SLF is very pleased …

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Latest Social Liberal Forum Publication Now Available: “Northern Discomfort: An Analysis of the Lib Dem performance in the 2017 General Election”

Having had something of a break over the General Election period, the Social Liberal Forum is back with its nose to the grindstone, publishing new content to stir the interests of  liberals—in particular social liberals– everywhere.

We are very grateful to Michael Mullaney for writing his excellent analysis of the General Election results, especially as it focuses on the fate of the party in significant regions of  England.  We now hold only one seat in the north of England (Westmorland and Lonsdale) and looking at the north, the Midlands, Wales and East Anglia combined, we defended only seven of the 16 second places we were defending, and lost our seats in Leeds Northwest, Sheffield Hallam and Ceredigion.

The story of this General Election is undoubtedly the fall in vote share to 7.4%–wonderful as it may be to have increased our tally of MPs by four– and the party facing irrelevance in large parts of the north, and other parts of the country.   This is particularly distressing, as our policies would make such a difference to people living in these regions of England.

At the end of his piece, Michael says,

….there is a large potential market place for centre-left progressive politics.  This gives us the opportunity at the next election to present the public with a progressive, social liberal agenda.

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We got the power – a song to inspire our campaigning

It is great that we are in full swing so quickly for GE2017! Great organisation and planning by Lib Dem HQ all those months ago after the EU Referendum.

So, how do we campaign to get the best result for liberalism and the country? Focus leaflets, letters, memes, tweets, facebook posts, blogs are all vital parts of modern campaigning. But can I suggest a campaign song—a song that captures what we are about and is relentlessly upbeat?

Posted in News | 18 Comments

New SLF publication on the European carbon market

As Brexit continues to hog the spotlight in the British media, there are still important issues being discussed and votes taking place in the European Parliament that Liberals everywhere should care about.

On the 15th February 2017, MEPs voted on a package of regulations intended to strengthen the proposed reforms to the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and added their own amendments.

Tellingly, the vote was welcomed by a number of high-emissions sectors as well as the European Commission but heavily criticised by a number of NGOs and advocates of carbon market reform, with Climate Action Network, for example, describing the compromise as a betrayal of the spirit of the Paris Climate Agreement. Next week (on Tuesday 28th Feb) EU environment ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss how EU member states will respond to the vote.

The environment and its stewardship have long been and remain part of the DNA of Liberals everywhere.  As part of its series of publications that challenge and progress thinking in a number of policy areas, the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) is pleased to announce the publication this week of “The European carbon market isn’t working – and social liberals should be worried”  by SLF Council Member Edward Robinson

The article looks at the history of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), analyses why it has not been working in the way it was intended, and looks at possible reforms to the system that would make it more effective at stimulating carbon price inflation and driving the uptake of clean technologies.

As Edward says:

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How to campaign in a “post-truth” world

I am going to tell you a story.  It happens to be true.  But bear with me, there is a point to it.

The “Swinsty cormorant” was usually there, perched on a float around 100 metres out from the dam wall at Swinsty Reservoir in North Yorkshire, whenever I ran round it with my dogs.  I used to be fascinated by the lone bird and would always look out for him to see if he was there.  My imagination ran riot with why he was always there on his own with no mates in sight.  I was captured by the romance of his loneliness, I suppose.

But one day, about 18 months ago, it all changed.  I would often meet a man on the days I ran who I knew slightly, and we would have a chat.  One day I came across him by the location of the Swinsty cormorant.  I asked him if he, like me, was fascinated by this lone creature.  His reply crushed me—albeit in only a small way.  He pointed out something very obvious that I had, oddly, never thought of.  It was not the same bird there all the time—cormorants visited the reservoir in small numbers, so it was fairly evident that the actual bird changed, especially as there was only room for one bird on the float.

After that day, I did see a cormorant on the float occasionally, but did not particularly look out for it nor spend any time thinking about it really.  I suppose that was when I realized that I, in common with many people, was a “sucker” for a good story.  But when faced with the facts—the evidence—which blew the story away, I was not particularly interested.  The only actual point of interest was the fact that cormorants were regular visitors to the reservoir.

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Why liberals should embrace the Steady State Economy

One of the saddest things about the lurch to extremism and the right wing of the political spectrum over the past few years—and especially these last few months—has been that attention has been taken away from the significant problems with capitalism and its reliance on continued growth that the 2008 crash had exposed.

The Classical Economists, in particular Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, had already theorised centuries ago that growth could not go on forever and that eventually states would enter the condition of being a “stationary state”.  John Stuart Mill wrote that the “increase of wealth is not boundless….the …

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Opinion: It’s the Inequality

Gary Lineker has been coming out with some pithy, relevant comments recently on Twitter, and much like an essential feature of the game he professionally played, the result of the US election reveals a country of two halves.

Like Brexit, this result and the corresponding lurch to the right, stem from inequality. Unfortunately, and quite to the contrary of what these dispossessed people have voted for, the resulting administration now has the propensity to make their situation far worse.

It is one thing to be a demagogue and stand up and say what you think people want you to say. …

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Let’s think again about Universal Basic Income

I was disappointed that the working group on welfare at the recent Brighton conference decided not to back a Universal Basic Income (UBI). An amendment (defeated) put forward by members from Calderdale called for negative income tax. But actually, fundamentally, a UBI is both far more essentially liberal and—in any case–the current societal context and demographic trends demand that we should look far more closely at this, especially as we are a progressive party.

The current welfare system, introduced just after the Second World War, has become complex, bureaucratic, top-down and increasingly intrusive—note that all these descriptors are fundamentally illiberal. …

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Sorting Out the Political Mess

I am concerned about many of the issues that people have been discussing on Lib Dem Voice and the media over the past few days. The big issues being:

  • The referendum was actually about issues other than the EU and indeed immigration–in particular: gross inequality in our country; how austerity has created winners and losers when it comes to many cities and regions; and the opportunity this represented for people to punish the political elites.
  • The Leave campaign seem to have pedaled out a lot of untruths—especially the inability to be able to stem immigration in the post-Brexit world and our

Posted in Op-eds | 21 Comments

What is Nicky Morgan doing to school governance?

I’d love to know who is advising the Tories and Nicky Morgan with respect to much of what is contained in the education white paper.

What I sense overall is panic. They are terrified that we will not have the skilled individuals to make us globally competitive. So they are embarking on a series of measures that they think will give more flexibility in the education system and modernize it in terms of structure and accountability, on the one hand, but rigidly defining what children should learn, particularly at primary level, and sticking with archaic, sudden death-style …

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Why we need to develop hard-edged campaigning

 

No one can deny that the Tories ran a stunning campaign to get back into power in May.  It wasn’t a nice campaign.  It wasn’t the kind of campaign that we would ever want to run, based – as it was – on the politics of fear and division.  But, my God, it worked.  We must learn from it.  Not to repeat similar messages, but to replicate the style and method.

What absolutely clinched it was that the messages had a hard edge, were simple, and were delivered multiple times on a variety of platforms.  You would have had to have been living underneath a stone on a far flung Hebridean island not to have picked up the messages that Tory HQ were pumping out.  How much that then influenced the undecided (of which there are increasingly a large number) can now be clearly gauged by the fact that the Tories now reign unhindered for the next five years.  And then they will employ a similar style of campaigning to quite possibly be in charge again.  They need proper competition.

Time for us to wake up.

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Securing a future for sustained government investment in cycling and walking

Frankly, this is one of the main reasons I went into politics and am now seeking to become an MP. It’s  amendments to legislation such as this that can mark a step change in how we travel around the places we live on a daily basis and the knock-on effects on health, wellbeing, pollution and congestion.

The Infrastructure Bill, which will dictate the future direction and spending commitments for infrastructure once it becomes an Act, is nearing its conclusion. CTC, the national cycling charity, along with a number of leading transport groups, is demanding a change from the old ways of looking at transport infrastructure, as set out in the following statement:

One of the most important bills going through Parliament this year is approaching its conclusion. The Infrastructure Bill proposes a five year Roads Investment Strategy, but currently makes no similar commitment to long-term funding to vitally increase cycling and walking.

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Opinion: What it will take to win in 2015

The fact that there are just over four months now until the general election put me into a pensive mood about the state of British politics, what we need to do to change it and what I need to do to win.

The “trends” are:

  • People are increasingly disengaged from politics and have little faith in either politicians or the political process
  • People are increasingly not aligned to individual political parties
  • Young people, in particular, generally struggle to see the relevance of politics to their own lives
  • Because of prolonged austerity and “squeezed” living standards for the majority, populism, the politics of fear and a culture of blame are rallying support for extremist parties such as Ukip.
Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 34 Comments

Opinion: Setting the record straight

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 08.06.08 Liberal Democrats LibbyI was misquoted on BBC radio 4 on Monday. They said I had asked for Nick Clegg’s resignation. Would that it were as simple as asking for a leader to resign–as if that would change everything. But it isn’t. And I don’t feel in any way that I am being evasive or woolly by not asking for a change of leadership. What I am asking for is a root and branch review of our campaign strategy.

Let’s examine the facts.

We have just suffered a disastrous set …

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21st Century Education: A Social Liberal Approach

slflogoThe Social Liberal Forum are proud to announce the publication today of our newest publication: 21st Century Education.  The contributors to this publication are all experts in the world of education—the majority of whom are teachers—who are also members of the Liberal Democrats.   Grass roots members at that, many with long years of party membership.  As the editor of the booklet I am grateful that all the contributors were happy to write under the Social Liberal Forum banner.

What we are predominantly grappling with in this publication are not the usual battlegrounds of …

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Opinion: UKIP – let’s have a debate about low skills

strawberriesThere has been an inconsistency between two highly prominent policy areas that has been niggling away at the back of my mind for quite some time now.  UKIP needs to take note.

So, take two policy areas and also take into account the temperature (at least according to the Daily Mail, etc) of the voters.

The first area is education.  Schools that do not match up to the floor levels at Key Stage 2 and at GCSE are pounced upon by Ofsted.  They require improvement or are put into special measures.  All children must get 5 good GCSEs.  They must progress and they must aspire.  Think of the slogans that populate the UK and US education policy discourse: “no child must be left behind; “every child matters”; and social mobility is regarded and upheld as a kind of rebalancing panacea to address all social ills and help narrow the gap.

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Opinion: Getting back to sanity – EBC plans now dropped

The news about the abandonment of the EBC is to be welcomed by all interested in a progressive and inclusive education system. Is this beginning of the end of the regular Gove-ian, back of the envelope initiatives, which seem to have little to do with evidence-based, rigorous research and planning, and more to do with a kind of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, personal take on what makes for a good education? Somehow I doubt that. But at least it’s a start.

The education world has been suffering from major shock and awe style reforms and promises (threats?) of reform, such as EBCs …

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Opinion: Pity Gove’s 400?

You may have seen the list of the 400 “worst primaries in England”, according to M. Gove.  If not, you can download it here: Primaries.

I am not about to re-visit the bone of contention that is academy status among Lib Dem colleagues, but I do think we have to look very carefully at the whole issue of forcing schools to become academies–and look at it as Liberal Democrats, who value both devolution of powers and liberalism.

I know that those to the right of the party will say that there is …

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Opinion: How GCSEs made me envy my son

The heady waft of future and assured pupil disengagement is already pungent only one day after the announcement of the new exam system.  The wrong-headedness of the “reform” is enough to actually make you gasp.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do hate the personal anecdote–beloved of many politicians and responsible in my view for so much political damage (and used to the usual effect yesterday in that disturbing article in the Evening Standard).

But here’s one.  My elder son recently gained 11 A stars in his GSCEs.  He is a very academic child, as I was.  But as he did …

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Opinion: Finally lost it….

If there was ever any doubt as to the credibility and effectiveness of Michael Gove as Education Secretary, that has now been dispelled by the recent announcement via the Daily Mail about bringing back ‘O’ Levels.

Some I know have discarded this as not being serious, more an opportunity for Gove to act the Tory whilst his colleague flails around, making his opportunity for anything other than a one-term stint as Prime Minister highly unlikely.

Maybe it is a political move to manoeuvre himself into a prime position as custodian of the right wing, but the idea that he would use …

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Academisation: Is this the equivalent of the FE sector’s 1993 moment?

Academies are opening at an exponential rate. But there’s nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes—we have been here before, if we would all but look. A useful lesson can be learned from the FE sector and begs the questions: how long before all our schools are classified as being in the private sector? And what should we as Liberal Democrats feel and do about that?

Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (which took effect in April 1993), colleges were “incorporated”, ie they were given full financial independence, together with full powers to own assets, employ staff, …

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Opinion: Claiming the centre ground

As (at least) one Lib Dem member commented after the local council elections, “the only way is up” from now on. But to win back support and indeed increase our base we need to refocus. It is right that we should be emphasising our distinctiveness in the coalition, but we need to do a lot more. We need to clearly articulate what we stand for, and communicate it relentlessly to the electorate. In the same way that the more tribal parties will repeat over and over again the same phrase so that people end up parroting them (regardless of …

Posted in Op-eds | 41 Comments

Opinion: It shouldn’t just be about the NHS

As an education campaigner and someone who believes in the principles behind the NHS, I have been following the news about the changes we have managed to make to the health bill with interest, and, obviously, pleasure that we have made a difference.

But when are we going to get our collective heads out of the sand when it comes to the privatisation of state education, where “any willing provider” that we were all so horrified about when proposed in the health bill is already rampaging through the education sector?

It will not be long, believe me, where we are seen as …

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