Opinion: The Social Liberal Forum conference, Saturday June 18th

One of the dominant forces at the last federal conference of the Liberal Democrats was the Social Liberal Forum (SLF). In particular the SLF were responsible for the amendment to the NHS motion which the leadership of the party decided to support and has led to a rethink of the government policy on NHS reform. Not only was this a victory for the SLF, it demonstrated that ordinary party members can go to conference and have a direct say in the policy of our government – for the first time since the 1920s.

So who are we? Our members cover a spectrum of views. On the left there are some who have responded to overtures to the new leadership of the Labour party. Others are centrists within the SLF on the other hand agree with the government’s deficit reduction plans, but oppose the top down marketisation of public services and would like to see as a priority more financing of public services rather than tax cuts when the public finances recover.

Personally I would place myself in the middle of these two groups. I am in favour of informal contacts with Labour and for that matter with the Greens, but I would not publicly work with them. Part of their agenda is to recruit Lib Dem members which is understandable but it also makes it hard to work with these people who are seeking to take away your allies in what you are trying to achieve within the Liberal Democrats. I am not persuaded that the timetable for reducing the deficit will work as I think there is not enough growth in the economy and there is a danger that a reduction in growth will make the deficit worse. I also think it is counter-productive to reduce demand in the economy – as well as it being morally wrong – by cutting benefits which risk increasing poverty.

Virtually everyone in the party would claim to be a Social Liberal. Some however are in my opinion over-optimistic at the ability of market forces to achieve this end. I am not against market forces altogether by any means. I think the balance sheet on whether market forces are a good thing or not is a mixed one. Sometimes market incentives are nicely aligned to benefit the consumer, what we could call enlightened self interest. Sometimes however markets encourage perverse outcomes, such as pollution, exploitation of workers, conning the consumer. This is what we could call naked self interest.

A good example is the recent banking fiasco in which light touch regulation allowed market forces to let rip, with disastrous consequences. In my opinion the leadership of the party does not have a strong enough critique of the free market agenda of the Conservative party and as a result risks not being able to achieve some of it’s key objectives, noticeably on social mobility.

In addition I am concerned that the party is neglecting the green agenda. Not enough is being said about “green growth” and how to exclude non-green growth. Nick Clegg has failed to mention it in his last two leader’s speeches. It is true that the general public appears also to be losing interest in the green agenda, but that should be responded to by Liberal Democrats in government as a national emergency, rather than an excuse to ignore the green agenda.

However I am not a full-time politician. I do not have the time to look into these things in depth and for now I have more questions than answers. Clearly what we do need, not just for people like myself but for everyone interested in the Liberal Democrats in one way or another is a conversation.

To that end I am helping to organise the Social Liberal Forum conference on the 18th June. The list of speakers is not finalised. Clearly the SLF will have a big input in terms of speakers, but we want a conversation with all sections of the party, and interested people outside the party. Orange Book Liberals are very welcome to attend if they so wish and pluralists from Labour, the Green Party and those from no party.

We obviously want to keep Social Liberals within the party. Many identify as left of centre and would be tempted to leave at a time of coalition with the Tories. I hope we can make a good case for them to stay, particularly at a time when we are having a real input into the government’s NHS policy.

This conference on has a theme of “Liberalism, Equality and the State” and will be a great opportunity to examine these issues properly and ask the difficult questions. We have kept the cost of this one day event at a remarkably low rate and hopefully you will find this affordable. For this month (April) you can book at a special price of £15 or £10 if unwaged. Places are limited so we recommend you book ASAP. You can book online here.

Geoff Payne is the one from Hackney and an executive member of the SLF.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • I think that the SLF gives those of us in the Lib Dem Party, who have been on the brink of leaving the Party out of sheer frustration and desperation, the opportunity to stay and fight from within the Party. The “right wingers” in the Party CANNOT ignore the rest of us – they do so at their peril. We are a Liberal Party and that is what we should remain – we must not be driven by the Conservative agenda. The Conservatives are obviously set on trying to split our Party so that they will have complete dominance over those in power – we must not let this happen.

  • Simon McGrath 30th Apr '11 - 1:40pm

    An organised party pressure group, at odds with the leadership, promoting its own policy agenda and running candidates in internal elections. What could possibly go wrong…….

  • Dave Page – by what criteria are you describing “left – right” as a false dichotomy? You may not like it, the party leadership often has not (Charles Kennedy, in particular, did not), although I have to say, I think it was more out of party interest that they wanted not to acknowledge it (ie identifying the party with one or the other side would put possible supporters from the “other” side off).

    I am quite prepared to acknowledge there are other dimensions in political thought and ideology, but I think left – right is still useful.

  • George Kendall 1st May '11 - 12:51pm

    I don’t regard the SLF as a little clique. They represent an important part of the broad church that is the Lib Dems. From what I’ve seen, members of the SLF have made considerable and positive contributions to the party.

    There are people in the SLF, like Geoffrey Payne, who I’ve read a lot of in the members forum as well. I don’t always agree with Geoffrey, I’m middle ground in the party and I doubt I’ll be joining the SLF. But thanks Geoffrey for suggesting the conference, following your prompting, I’ve booked. It should be an interesting event.

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