Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Social liberals a-go-go

Last week, while flicking through Liberal Democrat News, on my return from NZ, I came across an article announcing the new Social Liberal Forum. My initial reaction was not positive.

This is despite the fact that my responses to those on-line “what are your politics” questionnaires place always me in the “social liberal” category. Also, I was quite comfortable with a lot of the material in Reinventing the State (2007). This is the nearest thing that the party’s “social liberals” have to a political tract and two of the book’s co-editors were Dr Richard Grayson and David Howarth MP, who are now leading lights in the SLF. Its core idea was, in the words of the editors:

“reinvent[ing] the British state so that it delivers social justice and environmental sustainability through a decentralised and participatory democracy”.

As far as it went, this was OK by me. But I also think that John Maynard Keynes had it right when he said:

"The political problem of mankind [sic] is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty”.

I support the Liberal Democrats because we, alone of the parties, stand for all three of these, as well as environmental sustainability.

In my experience, however, the party’s self-described “social liberals” – or, if you like, the “centre-left” - have been too narrow in their approach. They have paid too little attention to questions of economic efficiency and wealth creation. In pursuing their concerns about social and economic inequality, they have often tried to defend spending on public services, but have had rather less to say about how those services might be reformed and improved. (For more on this, see my review of Reinventing the State, in the autumn 2008 edition of the Journal of Liberal History.)

Through my jet-induced haze, the concept of another “ginger group”, apparently devoted to locking the Lib Dems into a “tax and spend” time warp, just didn’t do it for me.

Having followed the SLF website for a week or so, I have modified my opinion. For a start, their “ideas factory” is welcome: Liberal Democrats desperately need a new, inclusive forum for discussing new policies. There is already some valuable material on the SLF website. For instance, I commend to you the essay by David Howarth MP, on “what is social liberalism”. He describes the difference between “social” liberals and “economic” liberals as being about how best to achieve the redistribution of wealth and power. This is not the comic book tussle perceived by sections of the media – and some Lib Dems.

And it should come as no surprise that the “social liberals” are getting organised within the party. For some time now, Richard Grayson and co have been quite open about what they are trying to achieve [see this Guardian article, on the publication of Reinventing the State]. That’s to his/their credit. Some of the key players in the SLF were, predictably, very upset by the outcome of the vote on taxation during the Make It Happen debate at the 2008 autumn conference. After conference, ideas vacuum in the party started to be filled by the libertarians of Liberal Vision.

This means that the advent of the Social Liberal Forum might inject some more honest, rigorous politics into our internal debates. But if they want to be the predominant political voice within the party, the people running the forum should also address some big political questions.

The first relates to the “economic efficiency” part of Lord Keynes’s trilogy, as quoted above. A strong, sustainable economy is needed to support and underpin policies aimed at promoting equal opportunities. And, of course, the economic crisis is the biggest issue in politics right now (even if the climate crisis is just as important). The “market liberal” orthodoxy in economic policy, built up over the last thirty years is under sustained attack; a fresh approach is needed. This is a big opportunity for the organised “social liberal” group. But I am still not clear what sort of economic policy they propose and how it differs from current Liberal Democrat thinking (i.e., what Vince Cable says). This new forum provides them with a unique opportunity to tell us.

The second question is about how to improve public services, in order to improve public services and address social and economic inequality. In Reinventing the State, Chris Huhne MP made the case for ‘localism’ -- the decentralisation of management decisions and political responsibility – ahead of the use of markets and quasi-markets. Richard Grayson suggested how these principles can be applied in the NHS.

However, I do not think that the Liberal Democrats are a ‘localist’ party; at least, not of the type apparently contemplated by Richard Grayson and his colleagues. They should be concerned about this. Efficiency in public services is a more pressing question now than for many years, given the state of the public finances. A suspicion of the centralised state and its propensity to be bureaucratic and out of touch with peoples’ needs is an important reason why “social liberals” (dominant in the Lib Dems) part company with “social democrats” (who are more likely to be found in the Labour Party). Perhaps, in time, the SLF will show us a way forward:

The third issue is really about hard politics: how to ensure that voters like and support the SLF’s version of “social liberalism”. I argued in my Journal of Liberal History review that when the “social liberals” lose battles within the party, it is often for reasons of political strategy: the party leadership has decided that the party’s electoral interests are best served by moving in other directions. The vote on taxation last year is an obvious example. If they want to “win” all the policy arguments, the organised “social liberals” will need, over the long term, to convince the party’s leaders and strategists that their approach, their policies will benefit the Liberal Democrats electorally.

They may find this question the most uncomfortable. My diplomatic attempts (in private discussions) to draw out some kind of response have met with an awkwardness and the sort of statement Ken Livingstone made during Labour’s locust years in the early 1980s. (“We must not compromise with the electorate”, he said then).

The SLF website features an article by Steve Webb and Jo Holland on building a “social liberal” narrative. Steve and Jo build a compelling intellectual case for “social liberalism” but they do not provide a story that will engage with the emotions and expectations of the public. Yet they are not the first to fall into this trap. In any case, Steve and Jo have (re)-opened a discussion that is crucial within the Liberal Democrats; after all, “social liberalism” is – and is sure to remain – the dominant philosophical strand.

So we should try to be positive. If they can provide convincing responses on these key questions, the people running the Social Liberal Forum won’t simply have an even bigger say in the future direction of the party, they will deserve it. And the Liberal Democrats could become a stronger political force.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Clean, green and living the dream

I’m not long back from a terrific three-week holiday in my home country, New Zealand.

Nearly five years since my last visit, I was delighted to find that the waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour still sparkle like no other; that the beaches of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula are just calm and beautiful as ever; and that Great Barrier Island remains a paradise, unique in the world.

Each visit, however, I notice something big and important that is different from the time before. Last time, in 2004, it was the amount of change and new prosperity in Auckland and the extent to which the city had become plugged into the economy of the Asia-Pacific rim.

This time, something was missing. It seemed to me that New Zealand has, sadly, lost some of its green edge. Concern for the environment, sustainability -- kaitiakitanga -- seemed less significant in politics and public debate than in the past.

Kiwis have a deep sense of pride in our natural environment, our green credentials. Clean and green, 100 per cent pure, are the national brand. It’s not just spin: the 2006 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranked New Zealand first in the world. (OK, last year we came in at number 7)

New Zealand has often led the world for environmental commitment. In 2007, for instance, the then prime minister, Helen Clark, set the country a goal of being carbon neutral.

As long ago as 1972, New Zealand had the world’s first green political party. Both main parties now have vocal environmental lobbies. In NZ general elections, the Green Party usually wins between 5 and 7 per cent of the vote and, under the MMP electoral system, a commensurate number of seats in parliament.

When it comes to environmental policy, there is, sadly, a growing gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

The most obvious example is climate change. New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by about a quarter since 1990. The fulcrum of an effective policy to tackle emissions is a clear price for carbon, to ensure that those responsible pay for the damage they cause the environment. This way, emitters receive clear incentives to change their behaviours. A carbon price can be delivered through emissions trading (as in the EU), or via a carbon tax. After years of talk, New Zealand has neither.

In 2008, legislation was finally passed to enact an emissions trading scheme, that was innovative and ambitious, even if it agriculture, responsible for half the country’s emissions, was excluded until 2013 and cushioned with free credits after that. At the end of last year, the incoming National-led government suspended the scheme, pending a comprehensive review of climate change policy by a parliamentary select committee. The review arises from National’s coalition agreement with Act, whose leader says that climate change and global warming are a hoax. The committee’s terms of reference strike a sceptical tone, to say the least. The MPs will even look into the basic question of whether or not climate change is real! Back to square one . . .

In December, Simon Upton, who was environment minister in the National-led governments of the 1990s, noted in a Dominion-Post article that:

“Millions of dollars have now been invested in policy development [on greenhouse emissions]. New Zealand is the only country in the world to have fully elaborated both a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme and implemented neither. That takes some doing.”

He took all the key players in New Zealand’s multi-party parliament to task for this state of affairs. Mr Upton predicted that some kind of trading scheme will be enacted (he is probably correct) and called on the main political parties to build a political consensus behind whatever scheme finally emerges.

New Zealanders care a lot about the environment but that doesn’t shift too many votes. One reason may be the complexity of the issues, on climate change for instance. Moreover, the recession is now biting and Kiwis (like people in other countries) become more worried about jobs and mortgages. Last week, a survey for the NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development (NZBCSD) asked what New Zealanders saw as the most serious problem facing them and their family. Their top concerns were rising fuel and other prices, followed by the domestic recession, health care, household finances and crime. Climate change came in at number six. So the politicians may be tempted to perceive green issues as being less urgent than other problems.

Still, New Zealanders do not appear to have gone into a full-blown “climate trance”: 59 per cent of respondents to the latest NZBCSD survey picked climate change as a top problem. Earlier NZBCSD surveys suggested that Kiwis are clearly concerned about climate change and demand action. [click here].

Trance or no trance, it’s crucial that New Zealand gets this one right, even if its contribution to global greenhouse emissions is infitessimal.

The reasons are about trade and money, as well as greenery. Foreign investors will expect New Zealand to be credible on climate change policy. The world will look at the greenhouse record of NZ and its products when assessing whether to buy Kiwi. So will tourists deciding whether or not to visit. Kiwis can’t afford to risk losing their “clean, green” brand.

If New Zealand doesn’t get its climate act together, foreign governments and others may get stroppy. In 2006, the French prime minister asked the European Union to investigate imposing new border taxes on countries which have not put a price on emissions or carbon.

Let’s not forget the foreign policy issues. As new international climate change agreements are thrashed out, for Kyoto 2 or at Pacific and other levels), New Zealand’s negotiators need to be credible, seen to represent a country that “walks the talk”.

The new NZ government must provide the leadership and the vision and build the political consensus that is needed around climate change action. A programme to reduce emissions, including an emissions trading scheme, is essential. The price of failure could be very high.