Let’s embrace our distinctive and radical form of progressive politics

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The Liberal Democrat leadership election is seeing healthy debates between activists and supporters about the future direction of the party. There appears to be an emerging consensus from both Layla Moran and Ed Davey that the party needs to recommit itself to a clear centre-left identity. We Liberal Democrats are the inheritors of two great progressive traditions, liberalism and social democracy.

Our party has one of the oldest political traditions of any party anywhere in the world. It can be traced back to the Parliamentarians and the Whigs of the 17th century. In the 19th century, our radical liberalism ended slavery and advanced primary school education. Whilst our social liberalism in the 20th century led us to lay the foundations of the welfare state and to support the sharing of power and profits between bosses and workers within the workplace.

The origins of social democracy in Britain are to be found with the Fabian writers of the 1880s. In the 20th century, the work of the leading Labour social democrat Anthony Crosland inspired many social democrats in the party from Roy Jenkins to Vince Cable. When the SDP was founded, it liberated social democracy from the divisive class politics of the hard left of the Labour Party.

Progressive politics in our party is a unique radical blend of liberalism and social democracy. Amongst the greatest achievements of our progressive tradition were abolishing slavery, extending the right to vote, establishing workers’ rights, creating the welfare state, legalising abortion and introducing same-sex marriage.

We will never embrace Labour’s socialist zeal for state ownership or class politics; but we should be unafraid if some of our policies, even our economic policies, are more progressive than Labour’s. For example, in 2017, our welfare policies were more progressive and reversed more welfare cuts than those of the Labour Party. Discussions about whether the party should be to the left or the right of Labour misses the point. We should always be more liberal than Labour and hold to our progressive values, regardless of where Labour positions itself.

We must avoid defining ourselves on a simple Labour-Tory binary scale which fails to take into account our unique form of progressive politics. If we position ourselves in the middle of traditional Labour and Tory politics, then we will forever be defined by our two main rival parties. We Liberal Democrats have always been more progressive than the Conservatives, but we are naturally more progressive than Labour in areas such as: political reform, civil liberties, the environment, Trans rights, the EU and immigration. Hopefully soon the party will formally commit to supporting the universal basic income (UBI), a radical policy Keir Starmer has so far rejected.

Starmer is nevertheless a vast improvement on Jeremy Corbyn. At last we could potentially free our country from this ruinous right-wing Tory Government. To this end, at the very least the party must work towards an unofficial non-aggression pact with Labour in vital marginal seats, as Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair did in 1997. If local parties choose to forge formal progressive alliances with Labour and/or the Greens in individual constituencies then the Federal Party should not oppose such moves.

While I think we should cooperate with Labour where possible; we should also not be afraid to oppose Starmer’s Labour when they act in a conservative manner on some issues. The Blue Labour tendency is likely to grow stronger as Labour seeks to appeal to populist voters in its former heartlands in the North of England and the Midlands.

As a party with only eleven MPs and only half the vote share we won a decade ago, we do not have the luxury of blandness. We need to be bold, radical and exciting to voters both old and new. We must strive to be more radical than Labour (in truth we already are in many areas). We must challenge conservatism wherever it is found. Our aim as a party is to emancipate individuals and communities through social justice, equal rights and decentralising power, not by empowering the state or other vested interests.

Britain needs a new inspiring political vision that is liberal, social democratic, green, internationalist and above all radical and imaginative. This will be the challenge for our new leader.

* Paul Hindley is a member in Blackpool, who previously served on the Social Liberal Forum Council from 2016-2021.

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  • Katharine Pindar 2nd Jul '20 - 2:45pm

    It’s excellent to have this posting here, Paul, thank you, and I particularly appreciated the link to the discussion of Alternative Liberalism by Stuart White. We should stress this idea, because it is too easy for our unfriends to associate left-of-centre liberalism with our rejected neo-liberalism, and Stuart White shows the richness of the Alternative idea.

    One of its manifestations should I suggest be the creation of a Citizens’ Wealth fund, which has indeed been mooted but not followed up in our policy-making. To me, sharing out what can be shared in specific gifts, such as the plans we have had to give people particular sums at certain times of their lives – perhaps when they are 25 and later in mid-life – would be more life-enhancing, allowing people to be free to consider new possibilities, than spending national wealth on any universal basic income plan. Everybody likes a windfall, as can be seen in the continuation of the National Lottery, and we could make it possible. With that idea in mind, there could meantime for example be cash handouts for the self-employed people who have fallen through the Chancellor’s safety-net, though that would be a saving from deprivation rather than opening up a new possibility for the recipient, at this time of hardship.

    Other than that, though, I believe that Alternative Liberalism should look firmly at shareholder profits, which too often seem to have priority over the rights of other stakeholders and the general national interest.

  • it is no good being radical progressive etc IF THE VOTER DOES NOT HEAR US. As the media ,press is mostly Tory whilst we should send press releases to them MOST OF OUR SELLING should be on social media and on the doorstep ALL THE TIME till our policies, message gets thru. Consistancy of selling the product is a must.

  • I hate this neo-liberal term. To me, it implies to people that it is like liberalism .It allows our opposition to sell themselves as like us I would be happy if this term was replaced by NON-Liberal.

  • David Evans 2nd Jul '20 - 6:28pm

    I agree with this article in almost its entirety except for one part – the conclusion.

    Indeed we do not have the luxury of blandness, but to say we need to be bold, radical and exciting to voters both old and new is not a consequence of that or any guarantee of success. It just isn’t that simple, because to most people we are irrelevant and they are not listening to us.

    Indeed the hard truth is that until the bold and radical becomes mainstream, few people vote for it, and when that tipping point comes (if it does) and the radical becomes mainstream, it is not often the early adopters that British voters vote for. Green has been subsumed into all the other parties, Economic Liberalism and Brexit have been adopted and abused by the Tories. Only the Scot Nats have built a real force out of of a radical idea.

    The old Liberal party spent fifty years trying to be bold and radical at that time, but at the end of the time they were down to 6MPs before they started to learn how to become relevant to the electorate.

    We don’t have 50 years to repeat the mistakes of the past and discover the truth that most people ultimately prefer competence and stability in things that are relevant to them, not bold and radical often in matters they care little about.

    Until we are prepared to earn that relevance back, yard by yard, council ward by council ward, as previous generations of Liberals did from the 1960s to the 2000s, through sheer hard work and effort and concentrating on things that matter to voters we will remain of no relevance to them and we will not recover.

    The question is are the next generation up for it?

  • Michael Bukola 2nd Jul '20 - 6:49pm

    Well, that’s the theory Paul. I fear this is more a self-fulfilling prophecy than hard political analysis. Social Democracy must occupy ‘the centre’ because it is there. Besides, that is where we are. But our strongest card will not be the promise to ‘restore the centre’, but the vaguer threat to ‘break the political mould’. In so doing, we’ll inherit, not the mantle of Attlee, but the legacy of Mrs Thatcher – for, though they may deflect it in a different direction, that is what he promised too. Whether it is possible to ‘break the mould’ and ‘return to the centre’ at the same time is the particular card trick or sleight-of-hand on which the fortunes of our new Leader depend.

  • Indeed, we should have an inspiring political vision that is liberal and social democratic. This is why a new Beveridge-type social contract to deal with five social ills is the way forward. This vision of a society without these social ills will mean no one will live in poverty, everyone who wants a home of their own will have one, everyone who wants a job will have one and everyone will be able to fulfil their potential.

    Like Katharine I read the article “Alternative Liberal solutions to Economic Inequality” by Stuart White on the Open Democracy website which Paul Hindley provides a link to in the second paragraph of this article. I have always liked the idea of workers being given each year shares in the company they work for, so as time goes by the workers own more and more of the company. Stuart White suggests that the government could gradually build up its share of private companies and use the dividends to fund a UBI.

    As pointed out our 2017 and 2019 manifesto’s had more progressive welfare policies than Labour. The time is here for us to build on this and not call for a UBI but call for the working-age benefits to be increased to the poverty level for each household type.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Jul '20 - 4:59pm

    I too think we should have a bold Liberal and Social Democratic vision, but I don’t think wanting the party to be centre left qualifies as a vision. What kind of society are we trying to create? The Tories want one where the rich get richer and richer and Labour wants one where the workers become the bosses. Both are highly divisive and based on a competitive, selfish view of how humans behave. By accepting this view we have been forced into a measly position where we just ask for policies that are a bit better than the others on offer.
    Our vision has been staring us in the face since our party was formed. We believe in liberty, equality and community. We are quite vocal about the first two but, except for localism, we haven’t developed our policies on the third.
    Let’s wake up and see what’s right in front of our noses. We are the only party that wants society to be a community where citizens are nurtured and free to be their best, where the need to be compassionate and nurturing that is within all of us is recognised and encouraged.
    The welfare of the community as a whole is what we aim for. If one group keeps resources to themselves at the expense of other groups the community as a whole will suffer so steps must be taken to redistribute those resources. Nurturing must be recognised in economic terms and our responsibility to the community which follows after us must be expressed in caring for our planet.
    It is our belief in community which fired our determination to fight to remain in the EU and that is why so many people supported this. The paucity of trust in the nurturing community as expressed by the Labour leadership and the Tories led to the disastrous Brexit we are about to experience.
    Ironically the Corona pandemic has awakened community action and responsibility in the general public. Now is the time to put forward our perspective on society which is so much part of our ethics that we assume it must be the same for the other parties. It isn’t. We’ve always known we don’t fit into the left or right straight jacket. Now is the time to shout out what we instinctively believe in so that others can understand.
    I recommend the ALDES paper Public Mental Health and Covid-19 for a useful explanation of the human need to express compassion.

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