Opinion: This is the Social Liberal moment

After months of planning, and not inconsiderate last-minute scrambling, the Social Liberal Forum’s first ever conference took place at City University on Saturday; envisioned by Hackney’s Geoff Payne and put into action by the outstanding team he led, the conference (#SLFconf on Twitter) was a massive success from so many perspectives.

Firstly, there was the interest generated by having two Cabinet Ministers and the Party’s Deputy Leader speaking – Vince Cable’s speech was carried live by the BBC and Sky news was also filming throughout the day. Of course the Ministers were a significant draw, but the packed-out audience was also treated to stirring contributions from a variety of speakers who held said Ministers to account in the spirit of open discourse. In addition we had Neal Lawson’s passionate speech on the importance of promoting social liberalism in all parties; Will Hutton’s on how social liberals must carry Keynes’ mantle and deliver a fairer capitalism; LDV’s own Mark Pack and Alex Marsh on the crucial differences between Big Society and Community Politics; and finally (ten times finally), Simon Hughes on how we deliver our socially liberal agenda. I hope to have photos and videos from these sessions uploaded soon.

Some in the Party had feared such a gathering would descend into a series of gripes at Coalition failings and factional infighting; these fears were confounded by the high-class debate, the open and honest assessment of how Lib Dems had fared in our first year in government, and the positive enthusiasm with which we debated our future policy direction. There was much to commend the tone of discourse, even if some in the audience saw fit to criticise the thoughts of the SLF’s first Director Matthew Sowemimo through the medium of Twitter – I may not agree with every last detail of Matthew’s assessment, nor that of other speakers, but if the conference showed us anything it’s that democracy as public discourse is alive and well in the Lib Dems – something that Matthew and Neal both acknowledged Labour desperately need to learn from.

A key take-home message for me was the determination of Lib Dems to hold their representatives in government to account and to press for distinctly Lib Dem policy; there was a real sense that fresh from securing substantive changes to the Tories’ misguided health reforms, the Party’s mainstream can now confidently stand up for its values. The word mainstream is key; as SLF Chair David Hall-Matthews emphasised, together with many other speakers, the views and policies espoused by the social liberal forum are at the core of the Party’s centre-left soul.

I’m proud to have been associated with this event, and not because I want the SLF to grow into a powerful faction within the Lib Dems. The final word in our name – ‘forum’ – is the key, and I hope that events like the weekend’s continue to foster debate around the philosophy, the policy and implementation of liberal democracy.

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7 Comments

  • david thorpe 21st Jun '11 - 4:52pm

    are social liberals happy to have keynes as a role model?
    he was after all, an economic liberal?

  • Rich – When I heard Ed Miliband say that Labour were too “casual” with civil liberties I thought his understatement was meant to be a joke. But then again, he did vote in favour of extending detention without charge to 90 days. I personally don’t trust him one bit when it comes to civil liberties.

  • The problem with today’s Labour Party is that there is no-one at the top willing to push a socially liberal agenda. Its leading members either cling to old-fashioned, centralised, statist “solutions”, or else pursue a populist (and often opportunistic) approach, often in practice aligning themselves with the right wing of the Tory Party. The initiative for much of the progress made on social issues during the the Blair and Brown years came not from Labour ministers but from the EU or ECHR. Indeed, given the context of the times, Harold Wilson’s Labour Government of 1964-70 can be regarded as having been far more radical than either the Blair or Brown administrations. But then, of course, the last genuinely progressive Home Secretary was Roy Jenkins. Indeed Labour Home Secretaries under Blair and Brown make former Tory Home Secretaries like Douglas Hurd and Ken Clark look like ultra-liberals. Ed Milibrand has neither said, nor done anything, to lead one to believe that a Lab-Lib Coalition Government would be any more progressive than the current Tory-Lib administration.

  • I was unable to attend but was extremely grateful for the fact that a UStream Live streaming of the day’s events was set up. Apart from a few technical difficulties with the volume of sound early in the day (which those of us at home solved by plugging in headsets to our netbooks) I thought this was so helpful. We could also “Tweet” on the right hand side of the screen and on Twitter – I could see that these Tweets were being scrolled up on a screen behind the speaker.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the day – from Scotland – and hope that when we have another SLFConf there will be a live streaming of that again.

    I thought it was an interesting, varied and successuful day – everyone who wished to was able to contribute, it was not merely “those at the top or on the top table” who could take part. We had good speakers and good debates. Well done!

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