Challenges for liberalism 1: How should liberalism respond to inequality and inequity in the UK?

Editor’s Note: These posts are based on a speech given by the author at an event organised by York University Liberal Democrats.

It seems to me that inequity is a huge problem right now. We have some of the richest and poorest parts of the EU within the country, and an increasingly polarised society. That polarisation is not only writing off millions of people, but it’s also creating the conditions in which authoritarianism, intolerance and violence thrive. We need some big ideas because what is clear is that we cannot keep going on the way we have been doing. We sold the country’s family silver and lived on unsustainable debt in the 80s creating a boom that ultimately had nothing propping it up, but our addiction to economic quick fixes met the cold light of day in 2008.

Sadly it seems we as a society haven’t learned our lesson. We’re just trying to get back to what we had before, and in trying to do that we are using austerity, and that’s both promoting the spread of poverty and systematically dismantling the structures and institutions we as a society have built to mitigate poverty.

So we are in a mess.

As I said, we need big ideas. The last time we faced a crisis on this scale it was liberalism that did provide the big ideas. The NHS, workers’ rights, the trade union movement, the welfare state. Labour may try to claim ownership of these ideas but we were there at their inception.

Let’s be clear – despite our government’s committed attempt to impose economic sanctions on ourselves with Brexit we are still one of the richest countries in the world. People sleep rough on the street, or have to go hungry to feed their children because we have decided, as a country, that these are OK. Two whole generations will work their backsides off to enrich landlords their entire lives because we have decided, as a country, that that’s OK.

And quite apart from the social consequences of this, our pursuit of a model of capitalism that has clearly had its day, at all costs, is destroying the ecosystem. Not the planet, the planet will be fine. It’s just that we might not be around to enjoy it.

Now I don’t claim to have the answers. There’s a lot of talk about moving to a post scarcity economy, of universal basic income, and other ideas and maybe they will coalesce around a single ideological framework, and I hope they will. It seems to me though that we need to start valuing people, and valuing the idea that we need to structure our society so that everyone lives in safety, warmth and dignity.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution has this clear when it talks about how none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

That lofty goal is not going to be delivered by fiddling round the edges of what we have now. Instead of trying to frame our liberalism in reference to the economic system any hypothetical liberal government would inherit, we need to start thinking, and acting, like radicals. Start with a bold vision, and let’s work out how to get there. One thing that is clear to me is that we aren’t going to get there by being triangulating centrists.

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist from Cambridge, an Exec member of LGBT+ Lib Dems and a former Councillor in Cambridge

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  • Hear hear, Sarah. I am not sure I have many answers yet, but as we frame ourselves as a national party in the run up to at least local elections next year, I don’t think we have a cat in hell’s chance unless we say some pretty radical things!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Oct '18 - 1:46pm

    A very good article, in style and substance, spoilt a little by the humility that is welcome, this being originality that is rarer, giving way to the typical dig at supposed centrists.

    Triangulating was a word utilised to describe President Clinton. In retrospect, for all the faults he is part of a olden era of unity rather than division, liking rather than hating, progressing rather than regressing.

    I do agree with Sarah that we none of us have the answers. I am pretty sure I know the answers might also come from the centre ground rather than the extremes. Centrism and therefore centrists, are words used by those who denigrate an area or mainstream of thought and ideas. Nobody talks a lot of leftism and rightism, leftists or rightists. We talk of socialists or conservatives, of fascists and communists. We talk of Liberalism and Liberals. Many are left leaning, some are right leaning, most are within the centre ground one way facing r the other.

    The one brilliant masterstroke of Corbyn is to present his ideas as the new centre ground, exactly, as with Sarah, because he recognises attitudes have changed, terrains have moved.

  • William Fowler 31st Oct '18 - 2:56pm

    Capitalism works much better than socialism for the majority of people, nearly all of the UK’s problems are caused by stuffing too many people into the country so love to see the LibDems solve that fundamental problem… never mind, might well be a natural exodus if we have a bad Brexit and then a Corbyn govn.

  • Sarah,

    you write “Two whole generations will work their backsides off to enrich landlords their entire lives because we have decided, as a country, that that’s OK.”

    Joseph Stiglitz has written extensively on this issue

    “The word “rent” was originally used, and still is, to describe what someone received for the use of a piece of his land—it’s the return obtained by virtue of ownership, and not because of anything one actually does or produces.. The term “rent” was eventually extended to include monopoly profits—the income that one receives simply from the control of a monopoly. In time, the meaning was expanded still further to include the returns on other kinds of ownership claims.

    The magnitude of “rent seeking” in our economy, while hard to quantify, is clearly enormous. Individuals and corporations that excel at rent seeking are handsomely rewarded. The financial industry, which now largely functions as a market in speculation rather than a tool for promoting true economic productivity, is the rent-seeking sector par excellence. Rent seeking goes beyond speculation. The financial sector also gets rents out of its domination of the means of payment—the exorbitant credit- and debit-card fees and also the less well-known fees charged to merchants and passed on, eventually, to consumers. The money it siphons from poor and middle-class Americans through predatory lending practices can be thought of as rents. In recent years, the financial sector has accounted for some 40 percent of all corporate profits. This does not mean that its social contribution sneaks into the plus column, or comes even close. The crisis showed how it could wreak havoc on the economy. In a rent-seeking economy such as ours has become, private returns and social returns are badly out of whack.

    In their simplest form, rents are nothing more than re-distributions from one part of society to the rent seekers. Much of the inequality in our economy has been the result of rent seeking, because, to a significant degree, rent seeking re-distributes money from those at the bottom to those at the top.”

  • Many thanks to Sarah Brown for her interesting article.
    A basic question is how can we organise the party to enable discussion amongst members on how we can in fact develop radical policies for the twenty first century. If we really believe in a democracy which allows all to participate we need to show how this can be done by organising our party in a different way.
    In particular of course IT should play an increasing role.
    I do not know what would work, but am convinced that the present set up is not working.

  • Sarah Brown is spot on! I believe the one single measure that could mitigate or almost eliminate the inequity of Britain’s now discredited policy — misleadingly and damagingly labelled neoliberalism — is the introduction of a well-conceived Universal Basic Income. It could be done over a Parliament of five years by redesigning the Income Tax regime. We must question the unthinking primacy of the GDP as the sole touchstone of economic success.

    We also need to draw attention to the recent spate of very authoritative reports from the scientific community — rising sea-levels, declining insect populations, unhealthy diets, et al.

    At risk of being drummed out of the party (after59 years) I urge that we seek a close alliance with the Green party. And do all we can to promote Proportional Representation: until that is introduced it is silly to call ourselves a democracy.

  • Gordon Lishman 1st Nov '18 - 10:22am

    The Preamble also says:
    he Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community……

    ………..We will foster a strong and sustainable economy which encourages the necessary wealth creating processes, develops and uses the skills of the people and works to the benefit of all, with a just distribution of the rewards of success. We want to see democracy, participation and the co-operative principle in industry and commerce within a competitive environment in which the state allows the market to operate freely where possible but intervenes where necessary………..

    …………We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity. …………

    ………..Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services.
    ………… We will contribute to the process of peace and disarmament, the elimination of world poverty and the collective safeguarding of democracy by playing a full and constructive role in international organisations which share similar aims and objectives. These are the conditions of liberty and social justice which it is the responsibility of each citizen and the duty of the state to protect and enlarge. The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together for the achievement of these aims.

  • nvelope2003 1st Nov '18 - 11:17am

    Liberalism will never thrive unless it stops censoring people’s views and banning those it does not want to hear. If this continues it will die.

  • Laurence Cox 1st Nov '18 - 1:19pm

    We have to restore the balance between manufacturing and services in this country. An economy that is 80% serviced-based is not capable of dealing with inequality because most services, apart from financial services, are localised. That also means we have to put in place laws that prevent our growing industries from being taken over; not so much to prevent Kraft buying Cadbury (although that was a disaster for their employees), but to prevent high-tech companies like ARM that have global reach being taken over. We cannot compete with low-wage countries in low-tech manufacturing, but we certainly can in high-tech manufacturing where intellectual property forms an important part of the value of the company.

  • David Walsh 1st Nov '18 - 3:48pm

    “The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution has this clear when it talks about how none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

    Well I for one am easily defined as currently being enslaved by all 3; poverty, ignorance and conformity. Why? I’m a wheelchair user. And things have declined in the last few years. Hate speech is normalised, as is the concept of deserving and undeserving groups.

    Most weeks, especially now that winter is setting in, I literally have to choose between heating and eating.

    I want to return to work but it’s challenging. I have gaps in the CV (catch 22) and when I do get interviews, from the 100’s of applications a month I then spend most of the interview explaining how my disability isn’t going to be an issue. The questions I’m asked include:

    Why shouldn’t we employ someone who doesn’t need extra help?
    When we have others who can lift boxes and do other things as well as everything you claim you can do why should we consider you?….
    and a classic “Your only here so that we can keep our statistics right for HR’.

    Yes the Equalities Act, has helped but the ignorance persists because their interactions with disabled people are usually seen as extra costs.

    Something close to the pupil premium that schools get might help. I don’t want an advantage over others, just a fair shot. It’s better for everyone that I return to being a tax contributor than being a cost to the state. It’s what I want but it takes both sides to be willing to make this work.

    In the mean time I’ll continue to put back where I can by volunteering for emergency response groups and community events. By providing my time. administration and technology skills, which I keep up to date, many lives are literally saved.

  • Spencer Hagard 1st Nov '18 - 6:00pm

    An interesting article and responses, and a timely reminder from Gordon of the very substantial statement of our values and principles that is contained in the preamble to the party constitution.

    To avoid ever-shifting ‘centrism’, we all of us need to be familiar with this terrain, and skilled in traversing it together. Towards that end, my first requirement would be that, in future, all draft policies submitted to Conference for approval should specifically refer to, draw upon, and discuss what is being proposed, in terms of our constitutional values and principles, including any proposed trade-offs among them.

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