Sunday, June 19, 2011

We're all Social Liberals now

According to David Howarth's excellent essay in Reinventing the State we are all - even David Laws - Social Liberals now. David Hall-Matthews, Chair of the Social Liberal Forum, echoed Howarth's view when summing up the SLF conference. The SLF is not a movement on the fringe of the Liberal Democrats, it is the mainstream of the party. Nor are Social Liberals the same thing as Social Democrats, as Matt Chorley seems to think in today's Independent on Sunday. Labour's Neal Lawson from Compass, who would hardly identify themselves with the SDP as they try to win their party back from its Blairite ways, seemed to think that Social Liberals have a lot in common with Liberal Socialists and therefore invited us all to join Compass. As far as I could see, only Richard Grayson is interested in this invitation and he's already joined.

Nevertheless, it is important to answer Liberal England's question: "What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat?". Even if it is clear to us it's not to the outside world who read journalists like Chorley, who lazily retold the old jokes about sandals and beards. Perhaps Will Hutton gave the best answer. He told us we are in the middle of a financial crisis not at the end of it. The cause he labelled as "rank bad capitalism" and the two possible responses are socialism and managing capitalism. The latter he identified as our approach based upon the ideas of T.H.Green, L.T.Hobhouse, Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge. He spelled out for us the dangers of the Greek crisis for British banks and hence the British economy. The UK has lent over £1 trillion to European banks and governments. We cannot stand aside with Tory disdain from what goes on in Europe. Chorley thinks Evan Harris was the star of the show. I think it was Will Hutton.

Ed Randall tried to compress an entire year's economics course into twenty minutes, singling out in particular the work of Japanese economist Koo. He left even those of us with Economics degrees gasping with incomprehension - "Koo...err...lummy". I'm sure the graphs were meant to help but there was only time to peer at them in hope. Ed argued that our economic policy should halt and reverse social inequalities, protect the environment and end the depradations of big finance. He was the warm-up man for Vince Cable and then sat shaking his head in disagreement as Vince delivered his usual avuncular performance. His theme was that the overriding priority is to rebalance the British economy which has become over-dependent on the financial sector with UK banks worth roughly four times the GDP. Vince claimed that government policies on apprenticeships, regional development and the green deal were starting to address the problem. He argued that the coalition was working for reform of the banking system, responsible capitalism and progressive taxation. The audience sympathetic to his professed views remained dubious about what the Tories would let him do.

There were many other thought-provoking contributions. Prateek Buch spoke great sense but I agreed so much that I wrote nothing down ! Evan Harris said some interesting things but his eyes are unsettling. Somehow even when agreeing with him, I found myself unsettled. Four of us interviewed him at lunchtime - more later. Simon Hebditch and others looked for links between the Big Society and Community Politics but failed to find them. Simon Hughes went on and on , enjoying himself and making endless last points.

I feared when I saw the agenda that there were too many speakers and the rest of us would be confined to short questions. That isn't how Liberals work. Most contributions from the floor were not mere questions. Nearly everyone accepted the need for the coalition; many supported the deficit reduction plan whilst others advanced plans B and C. Two great Liberal chestnuts re-emerged to applause: industrial democracy and land value taxation. We are not the Independent's pissed-off-looking guerillas nor are we socialist-lite, we are Social Liberals with a coherent philosophical pedigree and a determination to remind the world what our party is for. Exercises such as blocking Tory health reforms will not be enough to establish a separate Liberal identity. Our identity cannot just be as the people who put the brakes on the Tories. We have to show the country what we would do if we held the steering wheel.

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