Jo Swinson’s vision for 21st Century Liberalism

Jo Swinson’s keynote speech to Scottish Conference yesterday tackled many current issues from climate change to the challenges faced by developments in automation and technology which threaten 1 in 3 jobs.

She was clear that it was the Liberal Democrats who could lead in developing the answers to these complex challenges;

Most importantly though, as Liberal Democrats we need to bring people together to create these answers to our shared challenges.

“We must not leave room for the populists to sow their seeds of division. This means getting out of what can, at times, be our own echo chambers and starting to bridge the divides in our communities. Our proud liberal tradition of community politics and grassroots campaigning means we know how to do this.

“We have the wind in our sails.  Growing Council groups, strong by-election campaigns, more MPs at Westminster. People are listening again, open to our message.

“British politics needs this radical thinking, this consensus-building, this reaching out across party and ideological divides.

“British politics needs the Liberal Democrats.”

Here is the whole thing:

Every year, on this day, at this hour, we come together in thoughtful silence to remember those brave soldiers who died on the battlefields in the First World War and subsequent conflicts.

99 years ago the guns fell silent.

But barely 20 years later the world was engulfed by war once more.

And then, out of the depths of unimaginable pain and suffering and loss, emerged the green shoots that would become the European Union.

World War Two marked the third war in seventy years between France and Germany. Today, a war between these two pillars of democracy is unthinkable.  Instead, we have enjoyed seventy years of peace and prosperity in western Europe.

The European Union has been – and remains – a beacon of peace, in Europe and right across the world. It has defended human rights, upheld shared democratic values, and brought security and economic prosperity to countries across the continent.

It is not perfect. As Liberal Democrats we have long been at the forefront of calls for reform.

But there is no doubt that we are better off staying in.

We are stronger together.  The single market reduces trade barriers and protects jobs.  Cooperation on justice and security makes us safer.  Shared standards have improved our environment, workers’ rights, and the quality of the goods we buy.

Vince is spot on.  We need an exit from Brexit.

When the SNP won East Dunbartonshire in 2015, I was of course gutted to lose a job I loved.  But what distressed me the most, was what Scottish politics had become.

A hostile, nasty environment, polarised to the extreme.  Fake news, long before it became fashionable.  Online vitriol and echo chambers.

Actual violence and intimidation where before we had prided ourselves as a country on robust, good-natured debate.

And families and friends split by their votes, some unable to reconcile their opposing views.  Agreeing to disagree seemed a lost art.

Of course we know that referendums are by nature divisive – or if we didn’t before, we certainly do now.

Being forced to pick a side, and make a binary choice, when the reality is that life is complicated and most issues have many shades of grey.

Now it isn’t just Scotland that feels divided.  Brexit has extended that franchise across the rest of the UK.

We are a country divided by age, by geography, by education, by income.

Divided by referendums and by polarised values, divided by extreme nationalism and by the rise of populism, divided by a government that has doubled down on a hard Brexit instead of trying to bring the country together.

These sorts of divisions threaten our shared liberal values of tolerance, of respect, and of understanding.

The referendums, both on independence and the EU, have also lifted the lid on something much deeper in our society.  Sentiments that had been hidden.  Frustrations that had been mounting.

Resentment. Hatred. Anger at what people see as a broken system. For millions of hardworking people all over the UK, there is a feeling that the current system simply does not work for them.

The basic deal – you work hard, you get by – feels broken.

People are left feeling that things can’t get much worse, that they have nothing to lose.

And instead of trying to find real answers on how to reinvent the system for the 21stcentury, too many politicians prefer to point the finger of blame.

Whether it’s the SNP blaming England, Conservatives scapegoating immigrants (remember Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans?), or Corbynista Labour attacking moderates in its own party and beyond.

Stoking divisions creates an increasingly polarised society.

Politics feels broken. To me, to many in this room, and to many far beyond this conference hall.

I was chatting the other day to my brilliant American intern Grace, and she said something about this that really stuck in my mind.

Her parents, who are both journalists, had said to her: you might think this is just the way politics is, but you need to know this is not normal.  Where we are now is beyond shocking. The division between right and left is unprecedented and it is dangerous. The outright rejection of objective facts and the disdain for the established values of respect and human dignity is unlike anything we have seen before.

Trump’s America might look a bit like Brexit on steroids, but there are underlying similarities.

To varying degrees, both pull together some of the same constituencies, mixing genuine concerns with some intolerant attitudes:

  • discomfort with multicultural society and immigration
  • climate change denial
  • nostalgia for how things used to be
  • concern about globalisation and its impact on jobs
  • feminism-has-gone-too-far
  • and no doubt political correctness has gone mad

Then they fold it all into a nationalism that assumes superiority over others.

But there is an appetite for change.

We need to challenge the populist blame game with radical liberal solutions to the many future challenges hurtling down the tracks at us.

The world of work is changing. Constant technological advances, in automation and in artificial intelligence, threaten many traditional jobs.

Manufacturing. Retail. Transport. Professional services.

In the next 15 years, almost 1 in every 3 current jobs in Britain could be automated. 1 in 3. That’s 10 million people.

What will we say to the truck driver whose job is a thing of the past? To the shop assistant laid off as robots fill the gap?  To the paralegal, or auditor, whose knowledge and analysis is no match for the algorithm?

The government must start planning for this future. They should have started already.

The demographic challenges of our ageing population are well-documented, but where is the government commitment to developing cross-party, long-term solutions on social care?

Technology will transform healthcare too, with genomics enabling personalised medicine in place of one size fits all treatments.

And overlaying all of this is our changing climate.

Last year, Nasa’s top climate scientist warned that our planet is warming at a pace not seen in the last thousand years.

Climate scientists predict global warming will have reached over 2 degrees by 2050 – far beyond the 1.5-degree safe limit set in the Paris climate change deal.

And yet, Brexit threatens to weaken collaborative climate action in the UK and Europe.

Faced with these big issues that deserve government attention, bold plans and innovative solutions, what do we have?

It’s so depressing.  The Conservative Government limps from one crisis to the next, running away from votes in Parliament, Ministers clinging on courtesy of a weak Prime Minister.

It isn’t doing enough to prepare for next month, let alone the next decade.

It is just Brexit at all costs, whatever the cost – and we know the cost will be huge.  There is no room for anything else.

They are so obsessed with the constitutional question, they have taken their eye off the ball.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So what should we do differently, as Liberal Democrats?

We must seek positive, radical, 21st century, liberal solutions to these problems and more.  This is not a time for incremental change.

The march of the robots into our workplaces means we need to rethink jobs.

Machines still have limits, and will continue to do so. They cannot empathise or accurately mimic the full complexity of human interaction, and there are few signs they will be able to do so in the near future.

Increasingly, this will be what separates us from them. Our very humanity will be more precious than ever.

Our ageing population requires a growing care sector.  Care work should no longer be dismissed as low paid and unskilled.

Instead we need a care revolution to place caregiving where it belongs: as a vital and hugely valued part of our society, with well-paid staff recognised for the significant skills they bring.

We need to boost investment in renewable energy and step up the transition to electric cars too. The government has pledged to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 but companies such as Volvo are showing how timid that is. In two years’ time, they will stop all production of petrol and diesel-only cars.  We should be more ambitious to save our planet.

This way, we can start to clean up our polluted cities. Respiratory-related illnesses caused by pollution are putting further stress on our already overworked and underfunded health services. By cleaning up our cities we will help our NHS too.

And while we’re on healthcare, we need some serious innovation: the NHS is – shockingly – the world’s largest buyer of fax machines.

We’ve seen a rise in new Apps that support NHS processes. Apps helping patients manage their medication, apps helping doctors with diagnostic processes. We need to invest in health technology to bring the NHS into the 21st century.

Most importantly though, as Liberal Democrats we need to bring people together to create these answers to our shared challenges.

We must not leave room for the populists to sow their seeds of division.

This means getting out of what can, at times, be our own echo chambers and starting to bridge the divides in our communities.

Our proud liberal tradition of community politics and grassroots campaigning means we know how to do this.

We have the wind in our sails.  Growing Council groups, strong by-election campaigns, more MPs at Westminster.

People are listening again, open to our message.

British politics needs this radical thinking, this consensus-building, this reaching out across party and ideological divides.

British politics needs the Liberal Democrats.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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8 Comments

  • David Becket 12th Nov '17 - 6:43pm

    I doubt if the committees, or the leadership, read LDV. If they did they would see many taking the line of David Raw. We need policies with meat on them and we need them now. The country cannot afford to wait for the depressing cycle of Policy making to churn something out.
    Consultation at conference, FPC, back to Conference, back to FPC and if we are lucky we will then get something workable. Lead time, say 2 years!

  • Richard Church 12th Nov '17 - 7:15pm

    Great speech. It sets out the key challenges of our times that require Liberal solutions. Thank goodness it doesn’t go into policy detail, it would have been far too long if it did.

  • Jo Swinton’s vision is dystopian with 10 million unemployed people who were once truck drivers, shop assistants, paralegals and auditors. She could have added taxi drivers, teachers and factory and warehouse workers. She can only offer these people jobs as carers.

    She is correct we need to plan for this dystopian future and instead create a liberal society where everyone has enough to achieve a good standard of living, including a home of their own and there is a general equality of liberty. This has to include a Living Citizens Income and a fundamental change to taxation to support those not in work and the economy. It will also involve a fundamental change to attitudes especially to work. Work will be voluntary and the jobs done by humans will add value to the lives of those employed not just higher incomes.

  • It is hard to believe that politics in the UK is more divided now than it has been in the past. In the first half of the century, there was a general strike, Black Shirts, suffrage campaigns, resistance to wars and conscription, numerous revolutionary parties that attracted high memberships and got people elected to Parliament if they followed the electoral route. Things seemed to settle down for a couple of decades after the 1945 settlement but in the sixties there were big protests against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war, a counterculture emerged and became mainstream then there were big strikes and protests as the UK economy changed and traditional industries shrank. There were urban riots, the National Front attracted a lot of publicity, there were minor revolutionary groups, heated divisions over issues such as abortion or fox hunting, plus big protests about the Poll Tax. The Iraq War divided opinion and saw a big protest march. For decades, conflict claimed lives in Northern Ireland, there has long been movemennt for Scottish or Welsh independence or at least devolution and the need for devolution to England has been foolishly ignored. Dislike of the EC and EU has been around for decades but politicians rode roughshod over that discontent until they arrogantly beleived they would win a referendum on the subject. Diuring all this time, there have been big divides between the rich and poor relieved for a few decades by the 1945 settlement and postwar growth. Politics now is probably less extreme than it has usually been: big political protests are rare, terrorism in the UK is now usually by disgruntled individuals not decades-old organisations, revolutionary parties have miniscule followings and fascistic parties make minimal electoral headway. It is is just that many mainstream politicians have ignored problems like poverty or debt for decades and they are shocked when the some of the population protest by voting in referendums or backing underrated characters such as Corbyn or Farage. Everyone was meant to have been pleased with a few British Gas shares or minimum wage or cheaper consumer goodies on tick but that neo-liberal project has failed leaving mainstream politicians and their backers panicking, flapping and mystified. A similar situation seems to have happened in many other European countries.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Nov '17 - 4:30pm

    Good speech, but more in the style of thoughtful lecture , rather than what we need, and which , our leadership lack, anger and outrage at least at times.

    We see a shambolic government. We have a fantastical opposition.

    Yet from the perspective of the radical and moderate centre and centre left, there is much to express and an overall visionary way forward that has got to have now and ever real strength of character and a core to it that can only be conveyed with a crie de cour !

  • I have been a Liberal/Liberal Democrat since 1974. And to do anything you need to be in power. Being realistic if a General Election takes place in the next year we are going to be squeezed badly in an election.

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