Social Liberal Forum Conference – a belated report of an enriching day

Social Liberal Forum conference Jul 19 2014 closing panel Photo by Paul WalterThis time last week, I had just arrived at a very crowded Euston Station in London for the Social Liberal Forum’s Annual Conference. It was more than worth the 800 mile round trip, even if  I’ve been ill ever since.

Our own Mary Reid had a major hand in the organisation of the event, which was attended by over 200 people. She did a fantastic job. Everything ran smoothly and the food and drink on offer all day was really good. There were actually four members of the LDV team there: Mary, Joe Otten, Paul Walter and I.

It was held at Amnesty’s headquarters just off Shoreditch High Street. I liked the constant reminders that we were in a place where human rights were celebrated and those who were denied them helped. The building itself is modern, light and airy and the auditorium had air conditioning, which was much needed on such a hot day.

Vince Cable was the first plenary speaker of the day and he was in cracking form. He actually gave us a bit of an exclusive, which wound some Tories up, telling us that he’d persuaded Nick Clegg that they shouldn’t go ahead with the sale of the student loan book. He looked back at what his department had done in terms of workers’ rights, enforcing the minimum wage, raising it, tackling high executive pay, giving flexible working and shared parental leave and banning exclusivity on zero hours contracts. He said that his best achievement, though, was the development of a long-term industrial strategy to “give government backing to the industries that make the country’s living.”

He called on the SLF to help develop where we went from here, specifically talking about worker co-ownershop and determination, giving workers a real stake in their company. This was the sort of thing that was being widely talked about when I was first involved in politics 30 years ago and not much has been done with them.

One of the things that Vince has taken a bit of flack for has been the increase in fees for Industrial Tribunals. He was pretty honest about it, saying that idea from the Tories was one of the “messy compromises” of coalition.

As ever, the event suffered from that “too many things I wanted to go to at once” syndrome. My worst dilemma was choosing between Kelly-Marie Blundell’s welfare and food poverty session and Meral Hussein-Ece’s immigration session. Paul Walter went to the immigration session and wrote about it here. 

The welfare session had Kelly-Marie and David McAuley, the Chief Executive of the Trussell Trust, tell how the abuse of benefit sanctions is one of the factors that has led to an increase in referrals to food banks. McAuley cited the example of a builder, injured in an accident, sanctioned for not applying for a physically demanding building job. Kelly Marie said that the principles of the Universal Credit were fine, but the implementation had been “a shambles”.  She said that the Liberal Democrats and created the welfare state and it was up to us to rescue it. She specifically called fro reform of the hardship loans system.

Another highlight of the day was Tim Farron’s Beveridge Lecture, a call for “active, ambitious, liberal government.” There are many differences between Farron’s ideas and those of Jeremy Browne, but the most important for me was inclusiveness. Farron’s “comprehensive liberalism” brings the party together, Browne’s claim to “authentic liberalism” is, as I’ve said before, sticking up two fingers to social liberal and telling us to bog off.  Farron’s call for much better broadband (to reduce pressure on housing in cities), 3 million new houses in a Parliament and the living wage for everyone was nothing if not ambitions. I’ve always said that if politicians could just sort the housing crisis, it would be the biggest step forward we could make at the moment. Of course Farron’s words were going to be well-received in that audience, but it’s beyond that auditorium that they really need to take root. He thinks that the 30 and 40 somethings who can’t afford their own homes, and their parents, will respond well to this message.

I spent most of the afternoon interviewing Tim Farron and Ed Davey. I’m looking for people who managed to get to the final plenary session and the breakout sessions in the afternoon to add some more detail to the day’s events, so if you want to submit us an article, please do.

I’ve done a Storify thingy of mine and others’ tweets of the day. You can read it here. Over the next few days, I’ll be writing up my Farron and Davey interviews.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Eddie Sammon 26th Jul '14 - 9:50am

    I was impressed by Farron’s speech. I like politicians like Farron and Cable, but I still feel the radical wing of the Social Liberal Forum is a problem, especially after trying to oust Clegg and failing to listen to Cable and Farron when they appealed for loyalty.

    Often people who have a few radical ideas aren’t radical about everything, so we should talk, but we also need to be prepared to criticise. I also have problems with the radical wing of Liberal Reform, so I’m not just an SLF basher.

    Kelly-Marie’s talk also sounded interesting. I’m not totally against the idea of sanctions, but it’s like the death penalty – arguably fair at times, but if mistakes are made then the consequences are massive.

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Jul '14 - 11:28am

    a “flack” is a PR person/ dogsbody. I can think of a few in this government. Ithink it should be “flak”; which is short for FlugzeugAbwehrKanon:.anti aircraft artillery ‘ hence anti aircraft fire, hence by extension any hostile fire. and metaphorically strong criticism. The WW2 Flak88 was also used as an anti tank weapon (Pak) and developed as the main armament for German AFVs towards the end of the war.

  • SIMON BANKS 27th Jul '14 - 4:32pm

    I’m not sure what this “radical wing of the Social Liberal Forum” is. Eddie’s assumption seems to be that LibDems4Change were all in the Social Liberal Forum. Was that so, I wonder? I doubt it. After all, many people on the mailing list of the SLF weren’t even contacted by this obscure group. I wasn’t, and I’ve openly criticised the current direction of the party. Undoubtedly there are many, many Social Liberals who would like a new leader, but as far as I can make out, the vast majority either think it was too close to the general election to be making a change, or would have been relieved if Nick Clegg had resigned gracefully, but would have no part in a messy, noisy, prolonged battle to remove him.

    As for loyalty, it seems to me to be pretty basic to Liberalism to be loyal to principles and party rather than to leaders.

    The conference? It was brilliant – thoughtful, searching, participative.

  • “Undoubtedly there are many, many Social Liberals who would like a new leader, but as far as I can make out, the vast majority either think it was too close to the general election to be making a change, or would have been relieved if Nick Clegg had resigned gracefully, but would have no part in a messy, noisy, prolonged battle to remove him.”

    “No part in a messy, noisy, prolonged battle” = Loser
    “Refuse to resign gracefully” (see also Murdoch, Tony Blair, Bashar al-Assad) = Winner

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Jul '14 - 4:17am

    Simon, it’s nothing personal and my problem isn’t with everyone who signed “Lib Dems 4 Change”. I don’t believe in having far leftists as members of the party.

  • Peter Watson 28th Jul '14 - 8:06am

    @Eddie Sammon “I don’t believe in having far leftists as members of the party.”
    How far left is too far?

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Jul '14 - 8:10am

    Hi Peter, I’m sorry I don’t wish to get into a big conversation about this. I don’t mind so much if they are loyal, but I think the ones that show neither much loyalty nor electability are a problem. I can sometimes be a problem in my own ways too.

  • Peter Watson 28th Jul '14 - 10:22am

    @Eddie Sammon “I don’t mind so much if they are loyal, but I think the ones that show neither much loyalty nor electability are a problem.”
    Loyal to what or to whom? If I continue support the scrapping of university tuition fees, am I being disloyal because Clegg changed his mind, or loyal because that is the position the party took the last time I had the opportunity to vote for its manifesto?
    And electability? What evidence is there that the national party, with its current direction and under its current leadership is the most “electable” option we have? For some MPs and candidates, a little disloyalty (or at least distancing themselves from the leadership) might be their best chance to be electable.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Jul '14 - 11:18am

    Hi Peter, we are going a bit off topic, so I’ll try to keep it short. I think loyalty to broadly “liberal” principles are the most important thing, but loyalty to party performance is also important.

    I’m only talking about the most disruptive minority and you are not someone who came across my thoughts as one of those.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Jul '14 - 12:50pm

    Eddie Sammon28th Jul ’14 – 4:17am etc
    “Simon, it’s nothing personal and my problem isn’t with everyone who signed “Lib Dems 4 Change”. I don’t believe in having far leftists as members of the party.”

    Dear Eddie, I think you might find it genuinely interesting to read the history of the Liberal Party and on the aims and role of the Radicals and similar groups within the party and also revisit the words of the Preamble to which we all theoretically sign up to upon joining the party. If it read like a Centrist or laissez-faire declaration many of us would not be members of this party.

    Regarding ‘leftist’, do you mean people who believe it to be fundamentally bad for a society to have an ever widening gap between the very richest and everyone else (let alone the poorest) or people who believe that power should not be concentrated in the hands of big business and private monopolies any more than it should be concentrated in the hands of the state? If so I am proud to declare myself to be amongst their number!

    There are obviously huge differences between libertarian ‘leftists’ (Liberals) who seek to “balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community” and usually anti-libertarian statist ‘leftists’ (Communists and unreformed Socialists) who seek no such balance.

    One of the key causes of disappointment amongst our supporters and members, and hence our position in the polls, is the gulf between recent manifestos and some of the policies not only reached as a matter of compromise but gleefully supported by some in the party.

    ‘Loyalty’ is frequently resorted to by anti-libertarians or simply those in office etc in order to suppress debate and opposition. The Liberal Democrats must be one of the worst parties to keep ‘on message’ when we know the message to be wrong. I view that as a positive!

    Anyone seeking to lead the party must be aware of this fact when they decide to campaign to hold the position.

    Many of the best ideas shaping and strengthening British society have come from our party and its predecessors. Freedom of thought and expression are absolutely key to this process and to our party, philosophy and future.

    Just for the record, many of us who thought NC should have gone (quietly or otherwise) after the recent elections are not members of SLF or other internal groups nor have we signed the LibDems4Change petition. Persons drawing comfort from the number of members signing, do so at their own risk 🙂

    I am in full agreement with Peter’s observations.

  • Geoffrey Payne 28th Jul '14 - 1:25pm

    It is worth pointing out that as far as I am aware there was no discussion about the leadership of the party. It certainly was not on the agenda. SLF were not part of the campaign to remove Nick Clegg as leader of the party, although some individual members were. That campaign appears to have petered out in any case so we move on.
    As one of the organisers of the SLF conference I always try to make the event both forward looking and outward looking. It is hard to cover everything in one day but we do make an effort to pick what is really important and of interest. As I mentioned in my previous article this event was for all liberals both inside and outside of the party and my impression from the feedback so far is that we succeeded.
    However I would like to have a few more days to cover the issues even more thoroughly than we managed to do.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Jul '14 - 1:27pm

    Hi Stephen, thanks for your nice message. One of the reasons I joined the party was because of the preamble line: We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity.

    I refer specifically to the notion of dispersing power. Some people would describe my views as centre left (i.e. support for a wealth cap), even though I personally would not, so I’m not someone who wants stringent philosophical definitions.

    I’ve flirted with economic liberalism in the past, but it’s not why I first joined or what I feel most comfortable with.

    Anyway, I sometimes get the impression that some people don’t respect the “disperse power” line and sound like unreformed socialists. It’s not much of a problem now, but I don’t know how I would have coped in years gone by :).


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