Review: The Wolves in the Forest, tackling inequality in the 21st Century

The relationship between liberty and inequality is one of the central tensions in liberal philosophy – and one of the defining lines between economic and social liberalism.  So it’s highly appropriate that the Social Liberal Forum have published a collection of essays on this theme (edited by Paul Hindley and Gordon Lishman), taking its title from Lloyd George’s promise when presenting his ‘People’s Budget’ that there would be a time when ‘poverty…will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.’

Peter Hain contributes a sharply-worded essay on the Liberal Democrat record in the coalition, accusing us of abandoning the legacies of Keynes and Beveridge, though recognising that the previous Labour government had also failed to challenge the conventional wisdom of ‘mainstream economics’.  Other contributors reclaim Keynes, and Hobhouse, as major Liberal thinkers.  Paul Hindley insists that ‘individual liberty cannot exist without social justice’; and adds that the distinction between social democracy and social liberalism is that the latter are committed to spreading power as well as wealth.  Gordon Lishman reminds us that spreading power and status at work is also a long-held Liberal theme – badly neglected in recent years.  Robert Brown notes that a Liberal citizen community must be politically and economically inclusive: ‘People must feel they have a stake in society.’

Several contributions explore the different dimensions of inequality – from Britain’s sharp differences in regional prosperity to wide gaps in educational provision and social aspiration, to continuing inequalities for women and for ethnic minorities.  James Sandbach traces the differential impact of cuts in legal aid and access to justice on already-disadvantaged citizens; Chris Bowers argues that poorer people suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation.

After the retreat of the ‘Orange Book’ Liberals, which Geoff Payne celebrates in the conclusion, the party has again become more clearly social liberal in approach.  This book takes our internal debate usefully forward.  But there’s a lot further to go.  We have not yet engaged as fully as we should in the challenge to the conventional wisdom of economics: there’s a whole debate about sustainable capitalism, about the limits to globalization and the proper relationship between economics, open societies and democratic government which has not yet filtered deeply enough into the British political debate.  

There’s a mass of evidence on the different dimensions of inequality (not just the UN Report and the writings of Thomas Piketty, which many Liberal Democrat Voice contributors have read).  The Resolution Foundation is producing detailed analyses on ‘the generation of poverty’ and related issues; the Institute for Fiscal Studies has launched a major research programme, chaired by Sir Angus Deaton, on ‘Inequalities in the 21st Century’, which declares in its introductory paper that ‘As at no other time in history, inequalities dominate the economic and policy debate.’ (No. 10 has recently attacked both these respected non-partisan think tanks as ‘left-wing’ for their implied criticism of current orthodoxy.)  The UK2070 Commission, chaired by Lord Kerslake and managed by a unit at the University of Sheffield, published in May its first report on widening regional inequalities in ‘this divided nation.’

This SLF volume is a useful contribution to one of the central issues in British politics.  But the argument needs to be taken much further, both inside our party and in the wider public debate.  How do we persuade voters that higher taxes are a necessary contribution to creating a more just and sustainable society, against Conservatives offering them further tax cuts?  How do we persuade comfortable people in England’s south-east to pay more to regenerate the left-behind towns and cities of the north?  How do we spread power as well as income and wealth, to reintegrate a disillusioned electorate into our democratic life?  How do we push for different forms of workplace participation, representation and governance?  I hope the Social Liberal Forum will explore all these issues in depth, as we battle against the well-funded think tanks of the right with their defence of unregulated capitalism and a shrunken state. 

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • I hope my old friend William is willing to concede the social liberal tradition in the party would have been stronger (and my other old friend Peter’s comments had less bite) had the Party’s elected representatives (and Lords) taken more notice of Professor Philip Alston’s UN Report on Poverty in the UK when it was published in the Summer.

    Here’s the link : Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by … – OHCHR › documents › issues › poverty
    16 Nov 2018 – …. degrading,13 and the Inquiry undertaken by the UN Committee on the Rights …

    Sadly one of the leadership contenders admitted to me that he hadn’t read the report (I gave him a copy) – and our then DWP spokesperson (and now Presidential candidate) failed to even turn up for a debate on Universal Credit when the Report was discussed.

    I’m afraid the wretched Brexit business has drowned everything else out in the party’s thinking and campaigning…. and, yes, I know Brexit will make poverty even worse.

    William is correct to say, “This SLF volume is a useful contribution to one of the central issues in British politics. But the argument needs to be taken much further, both inside our party and in the wider public debate”.

  • David Warren 21st Oct '19 - 4:14pm

    Sounds like an interesting and thought provoking collection of essays.

    However the journey of the party over recent years gives me real concerns that the issue of tackling poverty and inequality has fallen way down the agenda. Being in coalition meant that Lib Dem parliamentarians contributed to making things worse and since leaving government we have become virtually a single issue party recruiting people who are making us into a mirror image of the Brexit Party.

    Recent reports by working groups and subsequent conference decisions demonstrate that genuine measures for tackling poverty and inequality have been shunned in favour of mere tinkering.

    I fear for the party going forward I really do.

  • I think the question
    “How do we persuade comfortable people in England’s south-east to pay more to regenerate the left-behind towns and cities of the north?”
    Is quite frankly wrong. While there are whole areas of the North that require regeneration there are towns and districts throughout the UK that suffer from deprivation. The area with the greatest degree of deprivation is Jaywick in Clacton
    Jaywick in Essex tops list of most deprived English neighbourhoods again
    Lincolnshire also has more than it’s fair share of deprived areas and I’d hardly class that as the North.
    Four hundred and twenty neighbourhoods in Lincolnshire have been named among the most deprived in England.
    Almost one in five neighbourhoods in Lincoln (18 per cent ) and one in six neighbourhood in East Lindsey (16 per cent) are among the most disadvanged.

    I could also point out London does not lack areas of deprivation.
    The problem with asking how can the South East help the poor North is that quite a lot of people would reply “Nothing to do with me, the North is full of strange people, not like the people in my little village”. While the actual question is ” How can rich areas help poor areas” and the answer to that is if you don’t crime increases and eventually so does civil unrest.

    As an aside Chile was recently lauded as the 18th freeest by a USA conservative think tank today the headlines for Chile are

    But Paula Rivas, the president of the Metro Workers’ Union in the capital, Santiago, said the fare hike was not the driving force behind the mutiny.

    “It’s the low pensions, the privatisation of water, the rise in electricity prices, the healthcare system, the need for equal education rights,” she said. “The metro fare was just the trigger, it is symbolic. It made people say enough”

    Source Yahoo news. And that will be our future if we go down the path of devil take the hindmost.

  • My first point is that areas are not poor – people are poor.
    I look at this in the context of our present, and continuing, environmental crisis. We need to consider all aspects of this crisis. The poor quality of our air, the use of poisons to grow the food we eat the destruction of species are all issues we need to think about. If we do not find a way of managing our planet it’s degradation will continue to accelerate.
    It is time to move beyond the ideas of the nineteenth century.
    We must harness the ideas of the all our people. We must use the internet to ensure that all can contribute to a decision making process. We must find ways of having a direct democracy.
    An excellent laboratory to test new ideas would be our own party. We should be able to show others how an inclusive decision making could work.
    I am deeply pessimistic. We become wedded to what we know.
    We will continue to kill or fellow humans in order to ensure that a small number of people can play their power games.
    At least we could start by looking at the reality of what is happening. We do not live in a capitalist society, but in one which has reverted back to a society in which a few are able to grab power and riches.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Oct '19 - 9:28am

    “The Universal Basic Income…….requires a lot of thinking…….. considering the wider psychological impact on society where people no longer need to work.”

    Just a little “thinking” might highlight the contradictory thought processes many Lib Dem seem to suffer from.

    On the one hand we can all lead a life a leisure, because there isn’t much that needs doing any longer, but on the other we will suffer terribly once we leave the EU because we won’t have the influx of EU labour after Brexit to pick our apples and look after us in the NHS when we are old and sick. Go figure!

    The fallacy does of course lie in the first part of the previous paragraph. There are lots of things that do still need doing. So why not tie in the UBI, if you want to call it that, with a requirement that those in need of it actually do some of those things?

  • “How do we persuade comfortable people in England’s south-east to pay more to regenerate the left-behind towns and cities of the north?”

    For starters its not just in the north. Look up the Trussell Trust website, see how many food banks they have and where they are located. Get in there and volunteer. There’s one in Shetland… the Liberal jewel in the crown and there’s even one in East Dunbartonshire…. and in every other Lib Dem constituency.

    East Dunbartonshire Foodbank – The Trussell Trust…/eastdunbartonshire
    East Dunbartonshire Foodbank Main Location. 52 Townhead Kirkintilloch Glasgow G66 1NL

    You don’t stand around wringing your hands and saying how difficult it is and how sorry you are about it – you just do it. You engage with the issue, get informed of the facts and read the evidence – and you turn up and speak in appropriate debates. Failing to do so sends a message of ‘don’t care’, ‘not interested’.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Oct '19 - 9:53am

    @ Tom Carney,

    “My first point is that areas are not poor – people are poor.”

    Have you been to Oldham or Walsall recently?

    In any currency union, money will tend to gravitate towards other money. In other words, the wealthy areas get wealthier and the poorer areas get poorer. So that would be Germany, Holland in the EZ, and the SE of England in the £ zone which get richer. The peripheral areas in the EZ like Southern Spain, Greece, South Italy in the etc get poorer the regional areas of England like the NE of England and NI get poorer too.

    This is a fairly broad brush statement. There are exceptions. Such as poorer areas of London to where the less affluent residents are forced to live. These shouldn’t be overlooked. Nevertheless it is still the case that Governments have a duty to apply a measure of fiscal equalisation. They can spend in the less affluent areas without it creating an inflationary problem. But when Governments spend in the richer areas, like the SE of England, it will have that effect. Even when the spending is for the best of intentions, it will still create the conditions of overheating in the SE. So we see an ever widening gap between the SE and the rest of the country in disparities of wealth and as measured by house prices and typical incomes.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Oct '19 - 9:56am

    David Raw 22nd Oct ’19 – 9:46am There was a Ferrari dealer in Sevenoaks, but it has closed. We are further down the line, and have a MINI.

  • William Wallace 22nd Oct '19 - 11:56am

    Frankie and others: Regional inequality AND individual inequality are both important. And England has the widest gap between London and the South-East and its poorest regions in the North of any OECD country except the USA. Tony Greaves and I were listening to a Ministry of Transport spokesman yesterday suggesting that investing in improved rail links for East Lancashire, one of the poorest areas in England, was not justified by (static) economic analysis. The opposite case is that these communities can only be helped out of the post-industrial depression they have fallen into by investment in infrastructure and encouragement for local enterprise. Cuts in Council spending have also, of course, hit poorest areas hardest, thus worsening inequality.

  • After Industry (thank you, Peter Martin), poorly skilled people will have no productive platform anymore to earn a dignified living. Without complementary physical capital, the productivity (=market value) of the poorly skilled will be below subsistence-level. No expense for regional “regeneration” (?) will change that. UK manufacturing is European or dead, as seen once already.

    Excessive qualification-efforts for all also do not help: already, many academically qualified do not find adequate jobs.

    So the only solution to the problem of inequality is redistribution. Corbyn blows this last chance right now by not seeing the inescapable logic: he can have Brexit or a social state, not both.

  • Lord Wallace correctly says, “Cuts in Council spending have also, of course, hit poorest areas hardest, thus worsening inequality”.

    He will recall that between 2010-15, when he was a Government Whip in the Lords and government spokesperson on the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education, the government forced local authorities to cut £18 billion in real terms, and projected further cuts of almost £10.0bn by 2020.

    The most deprived areas suffered disproportionately in these cuts. The average cut in spending power per household in Labour controlled council areas was five times higher than in Tory council areas after 2012.

    Labour controlled the ten councils with the biggest cuts – whilst eight of the ten councils with the smallest cuts were Conservative.

    This worsened existing inequalities. Nine of the ten most deprived areas faced higher than average cuts. Knowsley, the second most deprived area in England, actually suffered a cut of over £760 per household. (Financial Times).

    Liberal Democrats should reflect on this, and vow, ‘Never Again’.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Oct '19 - 3:20pm

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    I’m not quite sure what you are saying but the people of the NE and Northern Ireland aren’t intrinsically any different to those living in the South East of England. One cohort isn’t any more skilled than the other. Yet, the SE has always been wealthier. So what is special about the SE of England?

    The area across the channel, in the Calais Dunkirk region has an almost similar climate etc but it is considered by a relatively backward region by the French. I remember seeing a film called “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” a comedy involving a French postal worker who is transferred to a “cold and inhospitable region” after promising his wife he’d be moving South. If a similar film were made in the UK we could perhaps choose somewhere like Newcastle or Sunderland.

    It can only be because SE England is where Government is located. If the Government had somehow happened to be in Northern Ireland then the position would be reversed. So Govt needs to be cognisant of that and counter the effect with the right kind of fiscal policy.

    Incidentally, the UK economy might have its problems but it isn’t a basket case. Lots of people still want to come here including yourself! Manufacturing isn’t as important as it used to be, but it’s still an important part of the economy. I would like the Govt to encourage it. But there’s no need to be too reliant. Theoretically we could have a successful economy without manufacturing very much at all.

  • Lord Wallace thank you for the reply, but I think the point I raised still stands. We should not be looking to drag regions up, we should be looking to tackle deprivation through out the UK. We need to tackle the isolation of Clacton, the isolation of the South West, the isolation of the South Wales valleys as well as the isolated and deprived areas of the North of England. An epic task, but if we don’t try the areas of isolation and deprivation will grow and will even affect the affluent South East.

    Peter Martin, we are not a basket case, well not yet but if you get your fantasy Lexit we are likely to he well on the way.

  • I have just reminded myself of the contributors to the Orange Book and very impressive they are too. We seem far too quick to rewrite history and pretend that the coalition and all its consequences never happened. One underlying assumption in economic liberalism is the desire to better oneself and become one of the ” haves”. Liberal Democrats must surely aim to appeal to such people not just to the ” have nots”.

  • @ John Boss “I have just reminded myself of the contributors to the Orange Book and very impressive they are too”.

    In terms of outcomes this was not the view of the electorate.

  • Katharine Pindar 22nd Oct '19 - 11:43pm

    In order to sharpen our party’s thinking and intentions on tackling poverty and inequality, I wonder if perhaps we may need more fact-finding on individual households than on regional pockets of deprivation. How were households actually affected by cutbacks in local services during the Coalition years and after? Were they made poorer by them? And nowadays, people having to go to food banks – why are they individually going there? Will restoring benefits, ironing out the problems of Universal Credit and increasing the minimum wage boost their household incomes enough to enable them to stop? How much more urgent do we need to be about providing more social housing because rents take too much of household income, and should we be thinking seriously about how more secure jobs could be generated? Perhaps we need local Lib Dems to be active in surveys at local level as a start to more useful fact-finding.

  • Arnold Kiel 23rd Oct '19 - 8:32am

    Regions of wealth always agglomerate around world-class skills: silicon valley (high tech), New York (finance, the arts), Stuttgart (automotive), Oxford (education), London (finance, arts, advertising, entertainment, legal).

    Manufacturing also needs cheap land, fast transport, pollution-tolerance, and a skilled labour-pool, which makes it rather immobile. For these reasons, it exists far away from London and benefits remote locations.

    The UK’s wold-class service-sector will continue to concentrate around London, possibly a few more big cities. It will do nothing for the deprived areas which believed in a Brexit-panacea, quite the contrary.

  • I don’t think, David Raw, that it was as simple a cause and effect as you seem to suggest. Not least because most of our post coalition losses were to the Conservatives. My point re. Orange Bookery was simply to say that the contributions were an honest attempt to provide solutions to seemingly intractable problems which will not be solved by throwing money at them.

  • John Boss: Your concluding sentence is spot on: we must aim at all Liberals. But one of us two may be confused, I think, for I believe your “economic liberalism” is not the same thing at all as the “economic [and social] liberalism” in the second line of the leading article. It seems to me that you are thinking of ‘neo-liberal’ economic thinking, a term which for some years has tried to cover and disguise the hideous nakedness of what was once brazenly ‘Thatcherism’, or devil-take-the-hindmost. If I am confused about this, so are many others, and we need to get it sorted out.

  • @ John Boss “I don’t think, David Raw, that it was as simple a cause and effect as you seem to suggest. Not least because most of our post coalition losses were to the Conservatives”.

    I’m afraid I have to disagree. The Tories gained seats because the Lib Dem vote collapsed – down from nearly seven million (2010) to two and a half million (down by two thirds) in 2015. The Tory vote went up by less than 1% yet they gained seats by default. The Lib Dem vote collapsed after five years of Orangeism. In traditionally more radical Scotland the SNP almost swept the board with 50 gains.

    Lib Dems were no longer seen as the non-Socialist radical alternative to the Tories throughout the UK – and huge numbers of disillusioned activists and members just drifted away. If the party is to have a future it must fashion a radical social liberal platform for the post Brexit era if, sadly, as seems more likely now Brexit occurs.

  • David Raw: Your analysis is based on the assumption that all voters moved in blocks, iu.e. literally 4½M voters switched en bloc from Lib Dem to Labour, allowing the Tories to come in through the middle. That is not what happened, and it’s never what happens.
    The Lib Dems were hit hard in Tory-facing seats because of the double-whammy of aggressive Tory targeting and unwinding of the anti-Tory tactical vote. So many voters switched straight from Lib Dem to Tory because of the Miliband/SNP coaliition scare, or because they liked the Coalition and thought that by voting Tory it would continue. Our poor campaign, which did not give Tory-facing voters much real reason to vote for us instead of the Tories, was also unhelpful.

  • Alex, Of course you’re right voters don’t move in one direction in a single bloc…. and I didn’t say that.

    My point is the Lib Dems lost approx four million votes because they were unpopular in 2015 – for all sort of reasons including their policy decisions , levels of competence and standing on their heads. There are only so many times you can say put a penny up or put a penny down in politics. Two thirds of the 2010 support disappeared (including some who shuffled off to the great Assembly Room in the sky). There were too many ‘I’m sorries’ from St Nicholas which alienated traditional Lib Dem voters as well as floaters.

    My other point was to tell John Boss that the disappearing four million didn’t move in a bloc to the Tories – the Tory vote only went up by 1%. Over four million voters stopped voting Lib Dem and many of those in Scotland went SNP or even Green.

    You’ll probably say, and I’ll agree with you, that’s history….. but people have long memories. I believe there’s no future for the party post Brexit unless it adopts radical policies to tackle inequality, poverty and climate change. It’s got a particularly poor record even now on the former.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Oct '19 - 5:10pm

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    Yes universities do play a big part. The taxpayer funds the universities and the universities provide the educated workers. Silicon valley largely owes its existence to the right mix of government military spending and the existence in the locality of Stanford University. The area has a pleasant enough climate and it isn’t difficult to attract people to the region.

    The high tech sector in the US didn’t just happen. Like the internet, it was created as a result of government spending.

  • First, thanks to all above for an uncommon feast of good sense.

    @David Raw
    “If the party is to have a future it must fashion a radical social liberal platform for the post Brexit era if, sadly, as seems more likely now Brexit occurs.”

    You are right, of course — but surely we can sound more cheerful about it? By now, I think, the long Brexit calamity, whichever way it falls out in the end, will leave at least half the population sore and angry, and looking for a future beyond defeat. Won’t that mean a very large chunk of population looking for a party with new and radical ideas ready to be tried out or even implemented? And many of them will be youngsters who grew up believing they were Europeans who now find themselves disinherited both culturally and environmentally, stranded offshore awaiting trumpant vikings.. If so, that will be our chance, and we must take it.

    Other parties will be thinking the same (except, I hope, a demoralised Conservative Party! ) We must NOW be looking not simply at the next GE, but at another in about 2024, in order to get ahead of the game. I believe one major element of that game will be UBI. At first sight a batty notion, it offers a new approach to each person’s relations with his or her neighbours and authorities. Much can be learned about it in the Report by Professor Guy Standing of the Progressive Economy Forum for the Shadow Chancellor. It is thorough; it is about our way of life, not a dry work on Economics, and I find it generally more liberal than socialist in tone. The author believes it to be ‘transformative’, and I think he’s right. And the Greens have it in their manifesto. We would be foolish not to appraise it carefully, as potentially the “radical social liberal platform” that David calls for. I hope someone will initiate a thread devoted to the topic.

    Meanwhile Google:

  • David Evans 23rd Oct '19 - 9:46pm

    Alex (Macfie), David (Raw), John (Boss) – Martin Baxter at Electoral Calculus, produced an excellent infographic showing what happened in the run up to 2015.

    In essence we had lost 6% (of our 24% National Vote in 2010) to Labour, 3% to UKIP, 2% each to Con and Green and 1% to SNP. The Cons lost 5% to UKIP and 1% to Green. Labour lost 1% to Green SNP and UKIP. A late swing LD to Con probably explained most of the rest.
    I can’t remember how to incorporate a jpg into this post, but it can be seen on

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Oct '19 - 11:37pm

    I regularly describe my views this way, a classical liberal on liberty, a social liberal on equality, a social democrat on community, related ideas, and subjects and policies .

    We cannot really say we are sure what some so called Orange liberals or Liberals would have done without the Tories.

    Ah, wait a mo, how about our current, very able, talented, good, leader, who contributed a really excellent piece on well being to the sequel to the Orange book, Britain After Blair.

    We ought to do better than dredge up the many and definite mistakes of the coalition, into a permanent divide in describing good colleagues, fallible, humans all!

  • I would just like to echo some of the other commenters who are demoralised by the current party’s lack of focus of poverty and inequality, including tackling excess at the top.

    It will be increasingly easy for Labour to attack us on this front. And all the trends suggest anti-austerity and economic populism are in the ascendence in voters minds. We should take notes from the American left who are having a moment right now – and yes, I understand the overton window is very different across the point.

  • @ Jack Not the least bit demoralised, Jack, just extremely annoyed and disillusioned that the party seems to be pursuing a single one trick pony EU policy to the exclusion of everything else. It has put a telescope to it’s blind eye and not noticed what’s going on outside its comfy middle class drawing rooms.

    The party may well pay the price in an early election if it continues to stick its head in the sand, failing to attend or speak in debates on Universal Credit (as was the case recently). Incidentally the Lib Dem MP concerned held the portfolio but failed to turn up has a Trussell Trust Food Bank in her constituency which posted this at the end of Summer :

    “It is a little over 2 weeks since the schools have went back and we are now seeing the impact the school holidays have had on people. In the short 6 week period the schools were closed for the Summer we provided 436 food parcels to children and 1,226 to adults”.

    These things get noticed.

  • Gordon Lishman 27th Oct '19 - 2:08pm

    Thank you, William.

    Both for the review and welcome spurt of sales it stimulated via the SLF website.

    I agree with you that “the argument needs to be taken much further, both inside our party and in the wider public debate” and with your examples. Even more, I agree with your “hope the Social Liberal Forum will explore all these issues in depth”.

    But it’s an uphill struggle! The Party has lots of people who are happy to make the sort of comments which appear under your article – often passionate, sometimes aggressive, almost entirely generalised, and focussed on problems rather than solutions. There are some people who will write longer pieces as our book demonstrates. There is a glaring dearth of people who want to engage seriously with the big questions of analysis, big ideas and political choices which you set out.

    The Party’s policy processes ought to offer some help. Ha! The occasional flashes of radical detail are submerged in an ever-rising tide of “responsible”, subject specific, anodyne dross.

    Who is willing to help by sticking out their necks to contribute to big ideas backed by analysis and argument and by moving on from spending their efforts in commenting on side-tracks from other people’s thoughts?

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