Author Archives: James Baillie

The social market – a big Lib Dem idea

What people often struggle with when it comes to Lib Dem economics is not the detail of our specific policies – which voters frequently don’t have the time to dig into, in any case – but our economic vision. Labour has a Big Idea, nationalisation, which dominates its economic agenda. The focus on Corbyn’s renationalisation plans was out of proportion to their potential impact, because it fits with how people see Labour’s economics, putting more of the economy under state control in the hope that permanently benevolent governments will somehow manage to run it all for the public good. The Tories likewise have their Big Idea in privatisation, moving more and more of the economy toward shareholder-driven corporations, deregulation, and the profit motive, in the apparent belief that this will placate the magic efficiency fairies. What’s our Big Idea?

The answer, in my view, is the social market, the core of which is that businesses should be owned and run by and for people across society, as independent bodies working to do good things in their own way. Taken to its conclusions it’s a truly radical vision, requiring the transformation of how we hold and invest capital to make cooperative, mutual, and social businesses the new normal. Even taken over the short course of a parliament, it’s a vision that can provide deliverable goals, improving working conditions and pay as we democratise workplaces and help new social businesses enter the market.

The social market is far from the misconception of Lib Dem economics as blandly toeing the middle line between the two other parties. It’s what happens when we logically put our principles into practice, decentralising economic power directly to people in a way that’s sustainable, democratic, and socially just. So how do we get there?

Firstly, we have to make it clear what we’re leaving behind, and secondly, we have to put policies in place that make it clear that what are now considered ‘alternative’ business styles should be standard norms in a liberal future, and ones that we’re prepared to act to help people build and grow. That’s why at Brighton Conference I’m bringing forward Amendment One to F28, the motion on business policy.

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Will party reforms really lead to more democracy?

As anyone glancing down the Lib Dem Voice homepage will become rapidly aware, Vince has recently laid out his plans for the future of the Liberal Democrats, and party grandees and official social media accounts are pumping out a slickly coordinated and prepared promotional run of articles and ads. Whether this is remotely appropriate during a consultation on a draft paper, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader – but I wanted in any case to discuss the detail, so let’s cut the rhetoric and talk about the fine print that’s been conspicuously missing from recent articles. Do these proposals actually present a blueprint that will turn the Lib Dems into a much larger “movement for moderates”? And is that what we want to become?

It’s unclear either how the party will validate supporters effectively and efficiently, or how conflicts between member and supporter votes will be balanced if they arise in this two-speed system. The issue of tensions between Federal Policy Committee’s priorities motions and the proposed priority ballots for supporters has likewise been unaddressed, especially if HQ rather than FPC intend to write those ballot papers. A non-MP leader also raises the constitutional problem of how the parliamentary leader is then selected – if members are entirely cut out of selecting our parliamentary leader then we risk a worrying gulf opening between our policy-making members and our policy-delivering MPs. The right to choose our parliamentary leader is not one I think that Lib Dem members will be happy to give up lightly.

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In 2018, let’s campaign for Councils of Sanctuary

2017 was a year when a lot of unpleasant events occurred – from the Trump inauguration, to a continued Tory government, to reminders every other week that Labour still think foreign policy is something that only happens to other people. One story you may have missed however – and one of the most shocking – was that of an undocumented migrant being arrested by border security after reporting her own rape to police. That modern Britain is in a situation where the police will simply hand over extremely vulnerable victims of violent crime to the Home Office’s enforcers – a practice both Labour and the Tories are defending – is deeply, deeply saddening.

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The Radical Association: Fighting for a bolder Lib Dem future

Times are tough for liberals and liberalism internationally, and perhaps especially at the moment in the Anglosphere. It’s frustrating to be locked out of power, and to see our values attacked from all sides both at home and abroad. It’s miserable seeing the UK lurch towards a hard Brexit, and I hope that together we can fight against May’s love-in with the hardline authoritarian regime emerging across the Atlantic.

Even in the darkest and most confusing times, though, it’s important that we look to the future as well as fighting present battles.  That’s why I and others have been working on setting up the Radical Association, a new ginger group hoping to build innovative new policies and strategies for the Liberal Democrats to face the challenges of the 21st century. Global warming, increasing automation in the economy, cybercrime, building a more open & accessible society, coping with an ageing population, strengthening and revitalising local communities – these and more are all issues that need a wave of fresh liberal ideas to meet them and ensure we’re ready for the challenges that the future will bring.

We’ve now got to the stage where we’re ready to lay the groundwork and put together a formal organisational structure for the Radical Association so we can carry these goals forward. We’re planning to work right along the policy pipeline, from supporting policy research and discussion groups, through to working out how we can get bold, clear policies onto the conference floor, to helping the party campaign on new ideas and get them out into the country’s wider political debate. At last conference we were active in calling for a wider rethink of the party’s social security policy, and we’re committed to building on that and working on other areas in the months ahead and helping ensure members are presented with clear choices and big new policies on the conference floor and beyond.

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Three Freedoms: the campaigning priorities for Brexit

The upcoming Brexit negotiations will be difficult for Liberal Democrats to watch. The vast majority of us campaigned to remain, and even those who voted to leave will, I imagine, be nervous at the prospect of an authoritarian Tory leader, probably without a specific mandate from the electorate for her party to run these negotiations, having so much power over what Britain’s negotiating position is to be.

As a parliamentary party, our lack of numbers will make it hard for us to get our message across when we’re needed the most. This is a time we as members and supporters are perhaps needed more than usual; to directly protest, write letters, persuade our fellow citizens, and hold the government to account from outside Westminster in support of our representatives inside.
Creating unambiguous messages to send to government on such a complex problem with such diverse viewpoints is difficult, and much ink has been and, I’m sure, will continue to be spilt on the subject. Today I just want to outline an idea of one specific strategy we could take, which I’m dubbing the “three freedoms” principle, as an attempt to boil down the terrifying complexity of the EU negotiations to something rather punchier.

Essentially, my view is that in the negotiations (setting aside the upcoming struggles on eg working rights and environmental protection which are likely to devolve to Westminster) there are three key things to secure.

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We need to talk to Yanis


We’re fighting hard to stay in the EU in this campaign, and we’ve got a good fighting chance of winning it. But it’s important to remember that this has been the campaign that never should have happened. What we’re fighting against isn’t just the lacklustre waffling of a Tory-led Vote Leave campaign that’s largely been hijacked by a fluffy-headed careerist Etonian. That would have been no problem. The real enemy is a drip-feed of decades of anti-EU propaganda and domestic politicians deflecting blame to Brussels – which is in turn made possible by the catastrophic scale of voter disengagement with European politics.

And that’s at the heart of why we should take the leftist reformers of Another Europe is Possible seriously.

The EU needs reform. This oughtn’t be a controversial statement to make; it’s self-evident that in most European elections voters have been wholly disengaged from the issues upon which they were electing their MEPs, and that’s not largely the fault of the voters. It doesn’t help that the appointed commission wields a great deal of authority with little direct accountability, and the tendency of national politicians to use European elections as mid-term referenda on national governments compounds the problem.

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Community – a liberal value in a changing world


Community is – rightly – considered a fundamental part of our values as liberals. Beyond its inclusion in our basic creeds, however, it is perhaps one of the less discussed and debated parts of Liberal Democrat belief. Whilst much ink is continually spilt over our positions on equality and liberty, what “community” means is perhaps too often taken as a given.

I want to suggest that we need to think about this more, because community has to stand at the core of a liberal society – and not just in the sense of localism that “community” is too often restricted to in discussions I’ve seen. If we are to be a party that seeks to liberate the people of our country, community is a crucial part of that process. The interpersonal links people make are vital on all sorts of levels; for exchanging information, for coming into contact with new people, for mental and physical health. These things form the difference between being able to positively use economic and social freedoms and condemning people to soulless individualism; nobody is liberated by being thrown as an isolated object into a rat race.

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Nature conservation: a liberal legacy

2015 was a strange year for me, as it was a strange year for the party; an odd, jarring mixture of losses and new hopes. In my case, one especially sad loss was that of my grandfather, Ted Smith, a pioneer of nature conservation across the UK, and especially in his native Lincolnshire – and also a Liberal and Liberal Democrat since the 1930s (one of the last few times I saw him, I helped him fill out his ballot for last year’s leadership election). He was a kind, quiet man, relentless in his pursuit of good causes; but others now have to lift that flag, and as such I thought this might be a time to reflect on how we think about conservation as a party.

We know that the natural world is under threat, perhaps more so than ever given the threat of climate change, and we have been the party most committed to strong science-led efforts to tackle that threat. The green agenda, however, must not be simply reduced to a question of climate alone. We owe it to future generations to conserve and protect Britain’s biodiversity, green spaces and habitats.
Liberal Democrats have to take the lead on the politics of nature conservation. Firstly, we must because nobody else will do so effectively. The Tory agenda for rural areas is one for corporations and landowners, protecting vast mismanaged estates and failing to provide effective solutions to rural issues. Labour’s agenda for rural areas is all too frequently non-existent. We can do better, and we must.

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Liberty: It’s an economic issue


In light of recent events, one key question that has been flying about is where we fit into this new and radically changed political climate. Corbyn’s Labour may adopt more liberal policies on social issues such as mental health or LGBT rights, which whilst welcome gives us fewer unique campaigning avenues. Amongst all this, the economy is a key divider, and how we frame our policies may be crucial to our electoral revival or lack thereof.

Building a new liberal economics, distinct from Conservative or Labour strategies, is possible, and we need to do it by the simplest of methods – applying our own passion for personal liberty in the economic sphere. That means ensuring that neither corporate wealth, private wealth, nor the state are able to dominate people’s economic lives, and trying to make the position of ordinary individuals more economically powerful. That means a push to spread wealth and income more evenly without direct state control, by targeting ownership as a source of economic power.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 12 Comments

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