Vince, Brexit and inequality: a day at the Social Liberal Forum Conference

Vince  Cable SLF Conference 2016The alarm call at 4:30 was pretty brutal. I suppose it was my own fault. I could have been sensible and not have drunk large quantities of wine at a wonderful dinner with friends and got home before 12:30, but you only live once and all that.

So, I felt a little weary heading off to London for the Social Liberal Forum’s annual conference.

The event took place in the Resources for London building – definitely worth going to if you are planning a similar event. It’s a super space with halls and breakout rooms all on one floor. Our Mary Reid has a leading role in organising this event every year and she always does a brilliant job. Everything is run with efficiency and the programme is planned so that there is enough time for socialising and networking.

The theme of the day was Inequality Street, looking at the various types of inequality in our country, why it’s so bad and how we deal with it. It was based around the 2009 book The Spirit Level, which showed that the countries with the highest levels of inequality also had the highest levels of all manner of social problems.

The day started with a minute’s applause to remember two great social liberals we’ve lost this year – Eric Avebury and David Rendel.

The vote to leave the EU meant a significant re-jigging of the programme to give us an opportunity to discuss the implications of the vote and what we should do about it. Investigative journalist Shiv Malik, Jonny Oates, David Howarth, Lindsay Northover and Sal Brinton shared their thoughts with us. 

Malik, co-author of Jilted Generation: How Britain has bankrupted its youth, spoke about the generational divide, making the point that younger people had much more open and tolerant attitudes and were likely to stay that way, despite the fact that they have more financial struggles. He said it was no wonder they were angry when the Brexit vote had just pulled the rug from under them when they were already under financial pressure.

Lindsay Northover covered the international perspective. She said that while May’s appointment of the 3 Brexiteers was a masterstroke in covering her own back, tensions would soon develop. She said that the US wouldn’t bother much with us any more, and would prioritise relations with Germany as a way into the EU. She added that the new countries of the commonwealth were not particularly interested in us – and all thought that we should stay in the EU. Her conclusion was that we can’t take Brexit lying down. We need to change public opinion and show Leave voters that the things they are worried about can be addressed in another way.

Jonny Oates looked at the issue of progressive alliances and said that we had to build bridges. He talked about the need to understand why people had voted Leave. We need to challenge the economic model we have of corporates enriching themselves and not caring about their workers.

David Howarth said that the Leave majority will have disappeared within 45 months as older voters die and new, younger voters come on to the electoral roll. This would happen even if nobody changed their opinion from Leave to Remain. It’s quite frightening to think that by the time we actually leave the EU, most people will actually want to stay. That’s a compelling argument for some sort of second vote. He was also very clear about not pandering to that element of the Leave vote that was xenophobic and racist and was resoundingly cheered.

Sal Brinton looked to international examples of liberal parties who had done well on an anti-establishment platform. We know that the Canadian Liberals sensationally took power last year, but that was after a huge reorganisation where they didn’t let anyone over 35 on their committees.  South Africa’s Democratic Alliance and the Netherlands’ D66 have both done well positioned as anti-establishment parties. In terms of progressive alliances, Paddy’s scheme is more along the lines of candidates from different parties signing up to a set of principles and fighting an election on them. Candidates who shared those values could be funded by the umbrella grouping. It’s not about forming a new party or anything like that. She added that we had to be careful not to reinforce the political binary by entering a formal alliance, SDP style.

Vince Cable carried on the Brexit theme in his William Beveridge lecture. He joked about his own defeat: “I was evicted by a candidate who told everyone it was Cameron or Chaos.”

He said that unless we solved the political crisis in our country and across Europe, pursuing egalitarian policies would be very difficult. Progressive parties have lost 25% of their support in the last decade. He said that the movement had become disparate and inchoate, and its working class base no longer existed. In this country, failure in office – e.g. Labour’s embracing of the rich and Iraq and the rise of the politics of identity had contributed to the decline.

We need big ideas, not just tactics, ways to develop models of ownership to fairly distribute the rewards of enterprise. He gave the examples of Finland and Sweden where they have high levels of pre-tax inequality that the tax system balances out.

There were a number of breakout sessions, all of which I wanted to go to. I chose social security and ended up being asked to go on the panel. Here we are with chair Mathew Hulbert:

We discussed the principles of a fair and dignified social security system, the implementation of Universal Credit and how it’s fallen short of what it was initially supposed to do which was to eliminate the poverty trap. I had been concerned by Theresa May’s comments on Downing Street. A lot of what she had said sounded very good but she made it clear that it only applied to people who were working. My worry is that we need to look after those who can’t work and who will find the labour market even more difficult as a result of Brexit. I also said that we need to vigorously campaign to get the benefits freeze lifted. We will soon see prices rise as a result of sterling tanking and we can’t leave people to deal with that with no rise in income.

There were other sessions on inter-generational inequality, housing, health (with Norman Lamb). I want to find more about this Redline Voting organisation which is about shareholders, including pension trustees, only investing in companies which meet certain social, economic and environmental criteria.

The day ended with a discussion on whether equality could win ond where you balance liberty and equality with Neal Lawson from Compass, Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad.

The whole day was excellent with lots to learn and much food for thought. My e-reader is that bit heavier with recommended books from The Spirit Level itself, to Paul Addison’s book about the development of the post war consensus: The Road to 1945: British politics and the Second World War and a book mentioned by Bill Kerry of the Equality Trust in his talk, Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis by Max Rashbrooke.

I can’t recommend SLF Conference highly enough. Keep an eye on their website for details of next year’s event – although we should let Mary put her feet up for a bit before having to think about that.

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

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  • Yes, enjoyed the event. Why was it almost 100% white caucasian attendance for a party alegedly championing diversity?

  • nigel hunter 18th Jul '16 - 9:42am

    I agree with Alderman Beckett. We should not put all our eggs in one basket and loose them all.

  • theakes – Five of the speakers were BAME. We didn’t monitor the people who attended.

  • Neil Sandison 18th Jul '16 - 10:50am

    Agree with Vince Cables comments. We do need to look at the big picture progressive politics both here and in Europe .The hard right is on the move .Perhaps we should go back to our roots which were influenced by the French revolution Liberty, Equality, Fraternity there is clearly a growing movement to addressing the problems of inequality .Conservatives believe it can all be solved by market forces but we know state intervention and regulation can help level the playing field.

  • Mary: yes that is right. Just seems we have a problem within the party in comparison to the Conservatives and Labour, we should have a wide range of ethnic groups in the audience at our gatherings but it does not seem to happen, even looking at the annual conference. Perhaps we should hand all the reins over to the under 40’s, like in Canada. Hint for those noble Lords of ours, you may think that, I could not possibly say!

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Jul '16 - 12:58pm

    Thank you Caron for reporting back and your recommendation for coming back next year. We look forward to seeing you again and I am glad you enjoyed it.
    As organisers we try very hard to ensure there is diversity of the speakers, but as far as the attendees are concerned that is a reflection of the current Lib Dem membership and clearly something has to be done about that. A few years ago SLF organised a joint conference with the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) which was very successful in launching some radical policies that were passed at Lib Dem conference (but curiously did not get into the manifesto) and the invitation is always open to do another one.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Jul '16 - 2:49pm

    The Canadian party doing what it did relating to age is the most ageist and outrageous thing I have heard about a party which under its present leader , is no Liberal party , but is by the sound of it a youthful fan club !

    And whereas David Howarth talks sense at times, he is about many things , an academic better suited to academia , rather than politics in an active way that means facing an electorate again , if his solution to issues is to wait keenly for the elder voters to die out !

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jul '16 - 3:54pm

    Dear Geoff and SLF,

    EMLD is always open to suggestions about a shared conference, but as a Party we really must move from the laudable rhetoric into meaningful action, so we will be seeking the establishment of ‘outcomes’ from our leadership.

    As for things not making it to conference, it would appear from the current selection processes, which are far from open and transparent, that the spirit of the equality motion, that is now policy has also been forgotten by far too many very quickly, so even when things do get to and passed by conference there is no guarantee that anything will change.

    When push came to shove, far too local party groups have opted for someone who lost, to supporting someone who is more reflective of a 21st Century society.

    The case for equality was won decades ago outside of the Party, but alas we still seem to have to win the battle within.

    As Gandhi once said

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jul '16 - 3:58pm

    Dear Geoff and SLF,

    EMLD is always open to suggestions about a shared conference, but as a Party we really must move from the laudable rhetoric into meaningful action, so we will be seeking the establishment of ‘outcomes’ from our leadership.

    As for things not making it to conference, it would appear from the current selection processes, which are far from open and transparent, that the spirit of the equality motion, that is now policy has also been forgotten by far too many, so even when things do get to and are passed by conference there is no guarantee that anything will change.

    When push came to shove, far too local party groups have opted for someone who lost, to supporting someone who is more reflective of a 21st Century society.

    The case for equality was won decades ago outside of the Party, but alas we still seem to have to win the battle within.

    As Gandhi once said “be the change that you wish to see”!

    Unless BaME communities see a change, why will they join?


    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Chair – Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats

  • Interestingly talking about Canada. Remember after the previous election they still held 30+ seats about 10%+, we have 8 , what 1.5%. The Liberals made several by election gains after Trudeau’s election but we should recall that 8 weeks out from the election it was the New Democrats who were at 38-40%, way out front and heading for an overall majority. There was a TV debate between the Leaders and Trudeau came out best. The Liberals moved up from a distant third place to a close one and the New Democrats fell back but still leading with a month or so to go. It was a 3 way fight but with the Liberals gaining ground in Riding heavy Ontario, until the last 10 days when the Liberals mopped up the left and left of centre and the Conservative party left wing. It was only in the last week that the Liberals surged up to 39%. In the end the election was the Tories against whoever was perceived to be the stronger left of centre party, happily it eventually turned out to be the Liberals but it could easily have been the New Democrats if it had not been for the TV debate, some clear anti austerity policies, pulling the air force back from Syria and the appeal of Trudeau.

  • theakes: I agree with your concern but not with your figures. Yes, it would have been fantastic if there had been more Black faces. White people were over-represented. But the Asian element was significant and I saw several older African-Caribbean people. I was conscious, though, that the excellent young Black speaker from the Youth Council would have noticed hers was the only young Black (African or African-Caribbean) face. Then again, there weren’t very many young people at all. Since this was on a Saturday, not a working day, and our 2015 membership surge was disproportionately young, this is worth exploring. I hope new young members don’t see the SLF as an interesting relic of the conflicts of the coalition years. Do we ask them to join?

  • David Evershed 19th Jul '16 - 11:13am

    The question is surely why are BAME people not social liberals?

  • Laurence Cox 19th Jul '16 - 3:42pm

    For those still trying to understand why 52% of the voters voted Leave, here is a good article from Prof Eric Kaufman of Birkbeck College.

    What is interesting, is that while economic circumstances had little correlation with people’s votes, their position on the authoritarian/liberal axis was highly correlated. Asking people whether they wanted to bring back hanging turned out to be a good predictor of voting intent. Had the Remain campaign used these data, they might have changed their line of attack, as the economy was clearly not the issue of interest to most leavers.

    After the election, I happened to meet one of our local members on the bus and he told me that many people he knew had voted Leave because of crime in the area, which was linked in their mind to immigration. Actually, crime levels are quite low here (the Met Police shows us as the second safest borough in London and the ward is the third safest in Harrow).

  • Laurence Cox, that’s a fascinating article by Kaufman. Here (I hope) is an improved link:

    To cavil first: Remain clearly did poll better in wealthier areas. This might seem in conflict with Kaufman’s findings that voting was correlated with an authoritarian / libertarian axis rather than with wealth / poverty. However, this can be reconciled on the basis that fewer of the wealthier and more of the poorer people in the UK fall into the “authoritarian” category. To amplify: it’s “authoritarian / scared of change” versus “libertarian / accepting of change”.

    As you say, though, this should seriously change our assumptions on why Remain lost. It would be nice to believe that Leave voters are the neglected poor and dispossessed who need to be listened to, need a bit of TLC, deserve a bit more respect. Nice but largely untrue. As Kaufman indicates, they are in fact mostly an angry bunch of hangers-and-floggers, and they don’t want our respect or TLC.

    They are scared because change hurts them. They want security. Second best to that is revenge against those they identify with causing their insecurity. As one Leaver posted here, they see the Leave result as “an end in itself”. It is the perfect revenge, and they won’t let go of that revenge just because the economy goes down the pan, no sirree!

    So, when Cameron banged on about how important business, finance and bankers were, he was merely painting himself and the EU as the successful agents of disruptive change and modernity. Meanwhile Farage painted himself as old-fashioned values, stability, the pint in the pub, and the raspberry for liberals and foreigners. That’s how we lost the Leavers.

    Perhaps we win them back by recognising how they think. We don’t tell them how much they have hurt Britain and hurt us, because that’s exactly what they wanted to achieve in the first place.

    We do tell them – and by golly it’s true – that Brexit means insecurity and change. When trade negotiations flounder, City earnings dwindle, more businesses close, the next cuts hit home, and people start muttering about not being able to pay for our power and food imports – That’s when we win the voters back.

    The EU means – yes, bureaucracy, rules, endless talk… but also, security! Will we learn before we leave?

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