Time to get off the floor, and build a Social Liberal future

It would be easy in the wake of last December’s crushing election defeat for social liberals to be down-hearted. There are certainly serious questions to be asked with regard to the party’s election campaign. The social liberal narrative was drowned out by Brexit, and by an incoherent mix of tactical manoeuvres aimed at attracting votes from the right rather than from the left and centre.

Some of the operational questions that need answers will be dealt with in the party’s official election review. But as we turn to the future, the political ones fall to all of us to resolve.

The Social Liberal Forum (SLF), of which I am a proud member, intends to play a full part in the work that needs to be done. As we embark on that work, we will be guided by three simple propositions.

First, that we must never again allow the rich tradition of social liberalism, of Lloyd George, Beveridge, Keynes, Grimond and Paddy Ashdown, to be marginalised in Liberal Democrat identity and strategy. Its rightful place is at the heart of our party, furnishing it with a coherent, non-socialist but identifiably progressive alternative to Conservatism.

It is past time to re-discover the radical commitment to a Britain of empowered citizens and to champion that cause against the citadels of unaccountable and over concentrated power. To do that, we must develop a visionary and unifying social liberal narrative about the future of this country that doesn’t just attach us more firmly to the islands of support we already enjoy but resonates across all nations, races, regions, genders and social classes.

Second, we must focus on responding to the big technological, environmental and geopolitical challenges defining the age. Automation and robotics are transforming our relationship with the world of work. Our democracy is being disfigured by huge inequality and the dissemination of fake news. Bio-diversity collapse is accelerating and the world is doing too little to limit global warming. President Trump is abandoning the liberal order, while China is perfecting a high-tech form of mass surveillance at home and exporting it abroad.

There are however, huge new technology facilitated opportunities to empower citizens, promote and preserve human health, fight crime, deliver education, re-invent agriculture and sustainably re-imagine and re-engineer the cities and towns where most of us live. An old state and economy are dying before our eyes. New ones must be born. The choice in front of the country is not between status quo and change but between visions of change.

Third, tinkering at the edges of reform and focusing only the short-term is no longer going to be enough. It is time for some intellectual ferment, time to think long-term; time to think anew; and time for bold ideas.

That is why the Social Liberal Forum is embarking on a new programme of work focused on the next fifteen years, not only the next five. We intend to re-think social liberalism for a world transformed.

We will start with fringe events in York and continue at the SLF Annual Conference in London on 18th July, 2020

Please join us!

* Ian Kearns is a member of the SLF conference team, a member of the Liberal Democrats in Lewisham and former Deputy Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). He joined the party from Labour in June 2018, explaining why in a speech available here.

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37 Comments

  • David Warren 7th Mar '20 - 7:19pm

    Very well put Ian.

    The only thing I would add is that Liberals need to reach out to organisations that organise working people like trade unions.

    The majority of unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party and would I believe welcome opportunities to cooperate with us.

  • Very much agree with you, David!

  • A much needed message.

  • Ian Kearns 7th March 2020 – 4:06 pm:
    It is past time to re-discover the radical commitment to a Britain of empowered citizens and to champion that cause against the citadels of unaccountable and over concentrated power.

    Sounds good, but less than three months ago the Party was campaigning to annul a citizens decision to leave such a citadel of unaccountable and over concentrated power.

  • Are we forever going to have to re-run Brexit arguments, Jeff? Yours is one interpretation of the stance we took. There were others. Its rather wasting our time to replay them all though. What’s done is done. Time to pick ourselves up and go again.

    Re the OP, the challenge is translating those lofty ideals into tangible policy ideas that mean something to people. I still dont understand what ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’ is meant to mean. Pity the non-politically minded voter.

    And as a party we rspidly need to come to terms with this: “The choice in front of the country is not between status quo and change but between visions of change.”

    We are entering [/in] a period of political and technological change in which we will need to adopt positions that arent perhaps our natural home – but which are better than the alternatives that will happen if we dont.

    So eg trying to work out how we can best protect our relationship with the EU as a third country (which will be the reality for the next 15+ years, if not our lifetimes). One live example being dealing with the effects of leaving the EASA, with Schapps confirming the inevitable, and whether that leads to maintaining or raising standards, or lowering them in the search for a competitive edge. It’s a choice that is going to be played out across social, environmental and economic policies in all sectors as we disentangle (or simply slice through) our previous bonds with the EU. What is the social liberal approach going to be?

    Another is trying to work out how we embrace the use of data and digital IDs. It’s happening whether we like it or not. Industry will create it if Govt doesn’t, so if we dont want the concept to be misused or be grasped as an opportunity to create a national ID ‘card’, we need to be in there engaging with it and shaping how its adopted.

    I think there is a huge opportunity to grasp and shape the post-Brexit narrative, but it’s going to require the party to evolve to the pace of change pretty bloody quickly or we will be playing catch up (if not left behind entirely). 2021 is going to be a *very* different world, let alone the next 15 years.

  • These kind of posts seem endless and ever murky on details. LibDems are probably going to end up with a leader who can’t inspire and policies that few in the country are going to support whilst hollering on about making the world a fairer place.

  • Ian Kearns ambitions are to be applauded.

    But, it would be interesting to know whether there is any active communication between the SLF and the parliamentary party in pressing the case for social liberalism. The UN Alston Report on Poverty and Inequality in the UK (2019), and more recently the Marmot Report on falling rates of longevity as a result of austerity seem to have had very little impact on the thinking or statements by the parliamentary party. (Please correct me if I am wrong).

    A revitalised Labour Party under new leadership (plus the Greens and the Nationalist Parties) may well fill the gap in what ought to be natural territory for a radical Liberal Democrat Party in Parliament.

    As Ian says, “It is past time to re-discover the radical commitment to a Britain of empowered citizens and to champion that cause against the citadels of unaccountable and over concentrated power”.

  • Daniel Walker 8th Mar '20 - 8:14am

    @jeff unaccountable and over concentrated power

    Except the EU is not unaccountable, is it? The lawmaking bodies, the EU Parliament and the Council of the EU, are both democratically constituted, and ultimately control the rest of it. (The parliament can sack the Commission unilaterally, for example)

    Regarding centralisation, the principle of subsidiarity is literally written into the founding treaties, and there exists mechanisms (both legal challenges and the Council of the Regions) to object to decisions on those grounds. (See: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/subsidiarity.html )

  • It would be helpful to look at the reality of the world. Humans have succeeded in changing almost all the ecosystems on our planet over thousands of years. The rate of change is increasing. We know the situation is out of control. We know that the situation has been out of control for many years. We learnt about it in school during history lessons.
    The contribution that the party should be to work on how we can work together to manage our planet. In fact humans have made little progress in this. The party should be demonstrating how people could work together to take control of our problems and actually deal with them.
    This should start with the party. It is clear that many members have not felt that there was a means of working with others to actually influence what was happening.
    We need to start afresh and consider how we can ensure genuine involvement for our members.
    It would not be easy – but if we cannot do it what have we to offer.

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Mar '20 - 9:02am

    Perhaps we might think and talk to each other, and to those outside the LD network, in terms of socio-economics as separating economics from “socionomics” seems to have contributed to the problems now becoming ever more pressing?
    In a time of evident, dangerously reducing resources, such as a sustaining climate, might “Donut Economics” by Kate Raworth be worth reading and using?

  • @ Daniel, EU competence overrules shared competence and national competence in any circumstance where the EU has an interest.

    Subsidiarity is a fig leaf to give the impression of democracy but it is obvious that universal regulation and control throughout the EU is the overriding objective.

  • David Evans 8th Mar '20 - 10:26am

    While applauding the sentiment of this article, and totally accepting the need to make our policies relevant to the second quarter of the 21st century, I feel that it is once again ignoring the fundamental problem our party faces – Whatever we do at the moment, Most people no longer see the Lib Dems as being relevant to their needs.

    Many people here absolutely love discussing at length policy issues and arguing social and economic impact of Citizens Income, Inequality, Land Value taxation and Airport expansion, but most voters totally ignore our pronouncements.

    Why? – because from their point of view we are irrelevant to them.

    As recently as 2010 we were relevant enough for nearly 7 million of them to vote for us and they elected 57 Lib Dem MPs. Since then we have had two elections very much under the shadow of coalition, where less than 2.5 million voted for us, and one where our signature policy was totally relevant to the issue of the day and we got less than 3.5 million votes and were once again massacred.

    We have had a 15 strong Electoral Review Team appointed and has it apparently received over 22,000 submissions, presumably most in response to its rather limited online survey. However, we still don’t know what it’s scope is, how and who selected them and most worryingly, why its Chair chose to describe herself as “not a party insider!” when whatever laudable characteristics she may have, being “not a party insider” is definitely not one of them.

    However, since then, despite having news of a Lib Dem hold in a parish by-election in Eastleigh, I have seen nothing on LDV explaining anything about the review and how it is going to work, and little more on the party’s site either.

    It is already looking like we are going to be kept in the dark once again, until another fig leaf to hide the embarrassment of the party establishment is produced.

    I hope I am wrong, but it is all so much like last time, and the time before that.

    What is going on?

  • David Garlick 8th Mar '20 - 10:33am

    A VISION that people can relate to and addresses their concerns.

    What a novel idea! a a good one.

  • I agree with David Evans. My view is that the most important factor in any analysis of results is one of the enthusiasm of our members.
    To find out how enthusiastic members are is relatively simple. Ask them. Keep asking them. Make sure that members get feedback. Any ideas they give, make sure that those making decisions know about them. Show enthusiasm when there are suggestions. Tell them what the party is doing.
    Above all recognise that the party is the members. They are only really valuable resource the party has. And we have to recognise the party must talk to them as equals.

  • Layla Moran, in making her pitch for the party leadership, said that most people do not know “what the party is for”. This seems to apply to the party as well.

    In some respects, this is not surprising. Stopping Brexit dominated party policy for several years and that has left a vacuum. The revoke policy gave many a positive reason to vote against the party and they will continue to reject the party for some time. Another difficulty is that Labour is going through a similar exercise and there will be competition for future votes.

    Meanwhile, the broader public perception of liberalism is under attack. Political correctness, wokeness and no platforming in our universities is undermining confidence in our education and the quality of the graduates it produces. Activism in support of minority groups is perceived to be out of control, for example confused children being told that they should reject food, change gender, self-mutilate and prepare for a climate induced death in less than a decade. Criticism of activists can readily lead to death threats and hate mail.

    Organisations like the BBC, with its left leaning, London centric world view, is losing much of its audience and their goodwill. The Corporation is blind to the idea that it is out of touch with the public and blames populism for its growing misfortune.

    This party needs robust and honest internal debate to create a meaningful identity and purpose for the next decade. It must agree on what it supports and on the things that it does not support. Many left wing obsessions repel a moderate electorate and clarity is critical. There is time to do this but i needs action and determination. This site is as good a forum as any, but it is under used.

  • “Opposition parties don’t win elections; governments lose them”.. Policies, no matter how good, can only be implemented by a strong presence in parliament; bigger parties only bargain when it’s in their own interest.

    Flooding, Coronavirus and Brexit crises will expose Johnson’s ‘cabinet of clowns’…’Hang ’em high’ Patel and ‘Uriah Heep’ Hancock; to say nothing of Rees-Mogg whose sole contribution to his appointment is to advise changing ‘Happy Birthday’ to ‘God Save the Queen’ (Victotia, presumably) will be found wanting…

    Learn from the brevity of Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” to target each failure and those responsible. Turn each crack into a ravine and stop the ‘Mom and apple pie” promises.

  • @ Peter “Organisations like the BBC, with its left leaning, London centric world view”.

    That’s a very self revealing phrase despite your preferred anonymity, Peter.

    Public Service broadcasting is, and in my lifetime has been, an essential prerequisite to a liberal, society. If you prefer commercial broadcasting funded by endless advertisements for gambling, junk food, and meretricious half truths then you ought to say so.

  • David Becket 8th Mar '20 - 1:37pm

    @David Evans, Tom Harney, and expats

    You are right, but the issue is the culture embedded in the top of the party. How else do you explain:
    Target 100,000 doors, the target should be number of new members. It was when I did my first Action day in 1962.

    Mother and Apple Pie video, backed by Ed. Every party wants good schools, NHS etc. What people need to know is how the Lib Dems will get us there

    Web site based on begging for money, backed by Vince Canvassing, Jo speaking and group of anti brexit youngsters, taken in 2017.

    Nothing has changed since the downhill slide on 2010. Do we have a leader who can change this culture, I suggest not among the current front runners.

  • @ David Raw – As with the rest of my comment, I was referring to the current backlash against perceived left wing, liberal ideology and concerns about activism becoming too extreme. The BBC has been criticised strongly in recent weeks for having its own leftist liberal obsessions but perhaps you are not aware of that.

    This alleged backlash has been the subject of many posts on this site. I am making the point that the public do not have a detailed understanding of what this party supports and what it does not support, consequently it gets blamed for all the perceived ills of liberal policies. In formulating new policies, providing clarity to the public would be a good idea.

  • @ Peter I’m perfectly aware of it – but unfortunately you appear to agree with it and to be happy with it.

  • Christopher Curtis 8th Mar '20 - 8:22pm

    Just picking up one point: the party (and therefore the public) not knowing what it is for is also about different parts of the party having a number of contradictory views about what it is for.
    I’ve been re-reading the 2018 pamphlet “a Liberal Future” (it’s on this site) which talks powerfully about liberal values and liberal tradition, essentially about individuals and communities and radical democracy, with some specific answers to the “what are we for” question. This article is coming from a similar perspective, but I often feel that we are drifting around in a world of multiple policies and campaigns and even ideas, and plenty of positive messages, but no central theme or focus to make them coherent and to allow us to get to three word slogans that actually say something and define what we are all about. Unless we keep going back to our “ radical commitment to a Britain of empowered citizens and to champion that cause against the citadels of unaccountable and over concentrated power“, we don’t have a purpose. It was why we have to keep fighting Brexit Britain, and much, much else besides.

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Mar '20 - 10:08pm

    Before Social Liberalism and Liberal Reform there was Liberalism. I agree with much of what Ian says but there is a basic assumption about how life should be organised which is the foundation of Liberal philosophy. We believe that people are most effective in a nurturing environment not a authoritarian one and we also believe that people working together towards a common goal achieves more than dividing them through hatred and mistrust to compete for scarce resources.
    I think that both those premises are summed up in the phrase ‘community politics’. It isn’t all about potholes and working hard, it’s about creating the structures and opportunities for people to make their own decisions rather than having someone else make them and impose them on others. This is why power must be diffused and delegated.
    I think our biggest failure has been to restrict community politics to local government when it is equally important on a national level. Greaves and Lishman do point out that a nation is a community. This is the view of politics which can demonstrate the poverty of socialism as a philosophy and of populism as a cult. It also provides a basis for pragmatic decision making and evidence based policy because the purpose of those policies and decisions is to provide the optimum solutions to benefit the community and those benefits may change over time.
    At the moment, in my view, wealth is being used to benefit a certain group more than the community as a whole, so strong measures may be needed in the short term to create a better balance. In the longer term, with most people working together, the requirement for the happiness, fulfilment and success of the community may be met with fewer restrictions .

  • Frank West – “These kind of posts seem endless and ever murky on details. LibDems are probably going to end up with a leader who can’t inspire and policies that few in the country are going to support whilst hollering on about making the world a fairer place.” – yeah, “policies that few are going to support”, that’s why the Tories moved left economically during the last election. Don’t forget that many of Corbyn’s policies, if separated, have majority support. The populace have been already sick and tired of austerity that even the Tories have abandoned it at least in rhetoric.

    And, never forget that you right-wingers and your Orange Book were the main cause of the party’s collapse 5 years ago. Also, by jumping into the Coalition, the right-wing Orange Bookers frittered away youth support instead of solidify it. The right choice would have been staying in Opposition and spending that time capitalizing on Labour being tarred by the Recession and unpopular Tory austerity to keep building up and solidifying grassroot support and organization. Instead, Clegg and Co turned the party into a fall man for the Tories, and Labour have dominated under-45 votes since them.

    Btw, Coronavirus will cut through the ranks of the Boomers, given the current laissez-faire approach of the Tories when handling the pandemic.

  • Sue Sutherland – before Social Liberalism there was Classical Liberalism (its modern day equivalent being Liberal Reform). The problem is that the two lines of liberalism are directly opposed to each other when it comes to the most important issues, issues that directly affect people’s wallets and food on the table (and thus matter the most): economy, healthcare, social welfare and probably education. And we all know which approach is currently more popular, it is not the classical liberal approach.

  • We can also quickly take advantage of Coronavirus to distinguish ourselves, by:

    – Criticizing the Tories’ laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, and call for aggressive virus testing. You know, South Korea has been testing 10000 people each day for weeks, and by doing so they reduce the possibility of untested infected people and thus don’t have to quarantine any region, just specific buildings and/or neighbourhoods. The alternative to aggressive testing is Wuhan-style lockdown, which is much more illiberal. There is no third choice.

    – Call for an industrial policy, again.
    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-nhs-hospitals-masks-nurses-doctors-a9385131.html: medical supplies and equipment is already running out even though official infection figure is only over 200, because most of them have to be imported from China. See, a big case for an industrial policy must be raised by us.

  • @David Warren @Ian Kearns

    I think greater support for Trades Unions (I would strongly advise not distinguishing on whether they’re Labour affiliates) would be a good direction for the Lib Dems – though of course the tagline for this site suggests that’s the opposite of current policy.

    My TU is currently in its 18th day of widespread national strike action – with more planned the rest of the week. We’re not affiliated to Labour, but that hasn’t stopped the local Labour MP, councillors and campaigners visiting the picket lines to offer support, the local Labour branch donating to our strike fund, and so on. Other union branches have had similar support from their local Labour parties, as well as national-level support with the dispute being raised in Parliament by the relevant Labour shadow minister.

    There’s still time for Lib Dems to offer their support too.

  • Laurence Cox 9th Mar '20 - 12:50pm

    @Thomas
    If you cause panic in the population you will do more damage than the Tories are doing already. South Korea’s population is over 50 million, so even testing 10,000 people a day means it will take over 13 years to test them all once. Mass testing of the population isn’t practical.

    This is our opportunity to argue for communicating rather than commuting. If everyone has access to fibre broadband (preferably FTTP but even just FTTC) then working from home could replace a large proportion of office work, but we also need a change in attitude from management; we could start by legislating to give a right to home working in the same way that people already have the right to request flexible working.

  • Thomas. If you want to attempt to make political capital out of the oorona virus then good luck to you. Personally I think you would achieve the exact opposite of what you are trying too, but I would be most interested to see the actual outcome. As I understand it the chief medical officer and associated professionals all broadly support the government response to dat. Even labour has more wisdom than to try and make hey out of this but by all means go ahead.

  • Read date and hay ! Point stands though, very bad idea. In my opinion.

  • @Sue. I agreed with just about everything you said, until the final paragraph. By “Strong measures may be needed in the short term” I assume you mean confiscation of wealth ?
    When you add “in the longer term…..the requirement for the happiness, fulfilment and success of the community may be met with fewer restrictions” it sounder rather to close to Engels concept of the withering away of the state, that the coercion of the wealthy will only be a short lived necessity. Perhaps I have read a little too much into this, but I find the idea of “strong measures” and restrictions” somewhat at odds with my own brand of liberalism,

  • Laurence Cox – the other choice is lockdown, which is far more authoritarian. See Italy, it also tries to do the same thing as the UK is currently doing now – business as usual, and now they have no choice but to impose Wuhan-style lockdown on Lombardy. The thing that is happening currently in Italy will happen in the UK, if we don’t ramp up testing, mark my words.

    Mass testing will at least reduce the chance of undetected positive cases. The figures in Korea speak for itself, it has been slowing down over the last few days, and its death rate is less than 1%.

    You have to choice, early aggressive testing, or lockdown (the UK’s current approach will end up in lockdown, just like what happens in Italy).

  • Of course, working from home is a very good and necessary thing to do right now. But, testing aggressively is the only less authoritarian choice, because every other method will lead to quarantine/lockdown – again, see Italy.

  • Sue Sutherland – “At the moment, in my view, wealth is being used to benefit a certain group more than the community as a whole, so strong measures may be needed in the short term to create a better balance. In the longer term, with most people working together, the requirement for the happiness, fulfilment and success of the community may be met with fewer restrictions” – for this I strongly agree.

    Chris Cory – “I agreed with just about everything you said, until the final paragraph. By “Strong measures may be needed in the short term” I assume you mean confiscation of wealth ?
    When you add “in the longer term…..the requirement for the happiness, fulfilment and success of the community may be met with fewer restrictions” it sounder rather to close to Engels concept of the withering away of the state, that the coercion of the wealthy will only be a short lived necessity. Perhaps I have read a little too much into this, but I find the idea of “strong measures” and restrictions” somewhat at odds with my own brand of liberalism,” – drastic measures are needed in cases of extreme concentration of wealth and power. I think you ought to have a look at the Progressive Era in the United States during the 1900s-1910s, because it would show how such strong measures were done. Btw, you sound like a red-baiter in this comment.

  • Chris Cory – oh, I forget to add the New Deal in my comment about strong measures.

  • Thomas writes “Don’t forget that many of Corbyn’s policies, if separated, have majority support…. Labour have dominated under-45 votes since them[sic].”

    Sounds like a cause for celebration for you, then.

    “The right choice would have been staying in Opposition and spending that time capitalizing on Labour being tarred by the Recession and unpopular Tory austerity”

    I think the term for this is “revisionist”.

    The climate in 2010 was the following:

    – deeply unpopular Labour Party, responsible for the recession and uninterested in a (mathemtically impossible in any case) coalition
    – impending crisis in the public finances and the real possibility of a depression if the economy was not stabilised
    – an election that gave only one stable outcome

    Going into coalition was the right thing to do and did indeed prevent a depression, which would have created the sort of poverty and destitution that only inhabits your worst nightmares. I am proud of what my party did and achieved.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Mar '20 - 11:43pm

    Social liberalism is, arguably, just what this country needs at this juncture, when normal life is being brought to a halt by the Covid 19 virus. For while people are being told to distance themselves from others in public places and isolate themselves at home, it is being made plain by the scientist-instructed government that everyone must look out for others in doing so, not only to be protected personally but to inhibit the spread of the disease. Concern is expressed for grandparents, who must not be expected to take on parental duties to endanger themselves, for both residents and workers in care homes, from which visitors must be excluded temporarily, and so on.

    Neighbours and families and communities suddenly count for more than they did. The fierce divisiveness of last year’s politics is gone, as we combat this huge problem together. Our government suddenly takes on the role of protector and benefactor, with the new Chancellor promising to borrow and spend billions, fiscal prudence completely set aside. Our Prime Minister suddenly takes on the role of leader of the nation, which so few really reckoned he was fit for.

    Unity prevails. The nation waits, fearful, and adjusts to a strange way of life which everyone has to share. It is a time for Tory power, a sense that the right ruling party is back in place and we must let them lead.

    However, we know that the values and principles of this Tory government are not ours, and that Liberal Democrat values and principles and policies are what our country will need as we recover. Take only for example the issues of social justice. Will the plight of the poorest and most disadvantaged be remedied by this Chancellor, this government? We have seen, it is not in their nature. We can plan now for their future, and for ours.

  • John Littler 1st Apr '20 - 4:06pm

    I would agree that this is where the party needs to be. I don’t even believe there is any political space under FPTP for centre right leanings. Getting that close to the Tories is too toxic and what would be the point as they own that ground, even if they are in an internal coalition with hard right Tories.
    The LibDems most successful period, since the heyday of the Old Liberal Party, in decline from the 1920’s, was as a radical centre left force from the Alliance and under Ashdown and Kennedy. As soon as the public saw Clegg enacting or largely supporting mainly right wing policies they thought they might as well go for the organ grinder.
    I realise the coalition as not all bad, but it was not helped by the LibDems seeming inability to produce a list of achievements. If there had been one, I think I would have seen it.
    The LibDems need to figure out the lie of the future work, economy and society, to define a liberal progressive response and to own it.

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