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.

1 comment:

Left Lib said...

I think your criticism of social liberals can equally be applied to economic liberals as well. Everyone is looking for the magic formula that can deliver better public services that are a) responsive to local demands, b) that cost less than before and c) do not exploit the workforce or the environment.
At the recent one day conference in London Nick Clegg warned us that to deliver the spending cuts that he persuaded conference to pass, we will have to make "tough choices". As Steve Richards pointed out, he didn't say what those tough choices were. Nor for that matter did he say what they were when conference passed his policy. At the time he gave the impression that it can be acheived by cutting waste (and that his opponents were proposing to spend it on waste and nothing else as an alternative).
I have just been to a LD conference that shows no appetite whatsoever for making those "tough choices". Everthing was going to be "properly funded". No proposals for cutting jobs or services, or making better use of technology. I even heard a suggestion from one unsympathetic MP that the party is now considering not replacing Trident - which I heartedly approve but does go against internal democracy.
Not only that, it is surely much harder to say that economic liberalism is better at generating wealth creation when we now know that up until 2007 the growth that was acheived as by an accounting sleight of hand and nothing to do with real wealth. Without that bubble, there would not have been any siginificant growth at all, and surely we have reached a time when it is unlikely that any economic strategy will deliver growth through a properly balanced economy?
Surely economics now requires a paradigm shift - and the shame is that there is no latter day Keynes who can guide us to what it is?