Opinion: Reflections on the Social Liberal Forum conference

slflogoSo what did we learn this weekend?

In several ways, the Social Liberal Forum [SLF] conference in Manchester has been about celebration. Not only was the weather as glorious as it was when I left that great city as a student; but the work of the SLF in ensuring the delivery of social Liberal policies in Government has been worthwhile, should not be ignored and merits recognition for those who have played a part in it.

We were also – rightly – challenged by Norman Lamb when thinking about public services, that the best outcome may well not be the status quo, citing the role played by employees (for example) in experimental organisational structures such as mutuals, giving as an example the NHS. The Forum will engage with this agenda under Norman’s leadership.

Steve Webb spoke very strongly on the polarisation of public opinion on welfare. He told us that Beveridge himself would not have recognised the current debate. He then got onto the territory of which I and others within SLF are particularly proud; pension reform.  An area where SLF, contrary to what our detractors might say, have engaged positively and not just devised but implemented policy, working with Ministers and in particular Steve to ensure radical reform in line with Liberal values which will benefit millions of people in later life.

As you would expect, it was those values that were the main focus of the debate; from Vince Cable exploring within the boundaries of his role the need for Liberal principles in economics (and differentiation which might place him on the ‘naughty step’) to Gordon Lishman arguing for his and Bernard Greaves’ sacred Theory and Practice of Community Politics to be taken apart in order for the Party to relearn the underlying principles.

The principal message flowing from the conference has been this: that the values of the Party will be compromised if we allow our manifesto in 2015 to be steered by a need, however well-meant, to allow the decisions taken in Government, rather than by our values. It will be the Liberal Democrats on the ballot paper, after all; not the Coalition.  It would be simply absurd if the Party frames the terms of its economic argument by the compromises of coalition rather than the values of Liberalism; equivalent to taking a stance on Trident of: ‘we’ll not decide but instead will be influenced by our coalition partner [if any]’.

It is something of a backhanded compliment that Nick Clegg chose to launch his economy motion on the day of our Conference, not least because it gave those present the opportunity to discuss it openly. In the knowledge that social liberals cannot support significant parts of it, it was nothing if not brave. That bravery will be put to the test at Glasgow: that much we do know for sure.


* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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  • Simon McGrath 16th Jul '13 - 3:15pm

    It’s always nice to hear Lib Dem contribution to the Coalition praised, particularly from someone like Gareth who is generally not a fan.
    Surprising to hear him praising Steve Webb’s pension reforms though. On the plus side they have made a big contribution to reducing the deficit in the medium term – £9bn a year acording to the FT but on the negative side, as the IFS have said:
    “It is important to be clear that – while there will be a fairly complex pattern of winners and losers from the reform in the short term – the main effect in the long run will be to reduce pensions for the vast majority of people, while increasing rights for some particular groups, most notably the self-employed.”
    According to their analysis most low earners will acrue £5.05 a week additonal pension for every year while under Steve Webb’s new plan they will accrue £4.11.

    All rather odd that the SLF is taking credit for this.


  • Thanks Gareth. I wish I had been there. I am sure SLF makes a contribution to keeping people in the Party who would otherwise be repelled by some of the contributions to Lib Dem Voice.

  • david thorpe 20th Jul '13 - 12:12pm

    I cant help but refelect that a group which calls itself the socil liberal; forum has a roster of speakers who are socil conservatives-such as john pugh and sarah tetaher-and toa lesser extent steve webb-how can such a group be taken seriously when it gets as speakers people who dont share the values espoused by the name of the gorup

  • david thorpe 22nd Jul '13 - 7:42pm

    @ gareth

    I didnt say all of you qwere-just that you had soem there-the three I mentioend have been defended and embraced by the SLF-whilst anyone whor egards themselves as a social liberal should find people who oppose equal marraige to be no kind of liberal-never mind no kind of social liberal-
    The SLF have the capacity and space to be a valuable asset to the pasrty but at the moemnt the statiost-paternal;istic and almost authoritiarian loine advoacetd on many issues-not to mention the casual anti-intellectualism-is dangerous and closer to the conservatism of edmund burke than any kind opf liberalism-I also saw an SLF member(not one of the ones mentioend in ytour post) delivera homophobic inslut on facebook to a politicla opoponenet

    oh and Vionce cable describes himslef as mosre socially conserviate than a typical liberal democrat in his own meoris!

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