At the launch of the Social Liberal Forum in Harrogate, there was considerable enthusiasm among those attending for talking to people outside the Liberal Democrats where there is scope for developing policy ideas together. One organisation specifically suggested was Compass.
Coincidentally, an article appeared in the New Statesman just a few days ago which suggests just how much common ground there is for such discussions with Compass. In ‘No Turning Back’, the Compass Chair, Neal Lawson, and journalist John Harris, put forward perspectives which I think many Liberal Democrats share, and which I believe we should engage with constructively.
The overall thrust of the article is that in the current economic crisis, the Conservative and Labour leaderships are essentially arguing that the ‘downturn is there to be ridden out’ and that it will then be back to business as usual. The authors profoundly reject such an approach arguing that this thinking is as if Attlee’s government in 1945 had wanted to go back to the inter-war years, or if ‘Thatcher had turned out to be nostalgic for the three-day week’. Lawson and Harris argue that we now ‘have an opportunity to change society profound ways’. Why should this be welcomed by Liberal Democrats?
First of all, the authors recognise that we have been arguing for a different future. They point out that many people in the party understand ‘that the era of market worship is over’, and point out the effectiveness of Vince Cable in describing the flaws of the economic system. No doubt they would be encouraged by the extent to which the idea of a ‘different future’ was central to Nick Clegg’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference on 8th March. Some Liberal Democrats will probably ask, why then don’t they just join us? But I believe that approach would be simplistic because of my second reason for engaging with them.
Lawson and Harris call for ‘a more equal, sustainable, democratic and liberal Britain’. They offer ten specific proposals to achieve this, under the following headings:
1. Electoral reform
2. Introduce the Tobin tax
3. 35-hour week
4. A living wage
5. Radical localism
6. Re-mutualise and re-regulate the banks
7. A maximum wage
8. A Green New Deal
9. A tax on land
10. General Well-being Index
Some of these are already Liberal Democrat policy, and others are close to it. Other ideas, such as a maximum wage, and a 35-hour week, are more obviously associated with a different political tradition to our own, and are ones which we might not instinctively suggest. Yet because they may well have a role to play in the kind of future we want to see, I believe it is crucial for us to engage with these ideas from outside the Liberal Democrats.
Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting any return to so-called Lib-Labbery with talk of agreements or deals – and I don’t believe anyone else is either. Indeed, many of those involved in Compass are not in the Labour Party. But I do think we can benefit from an open and honest exchange of ideas – we may learn nothing and just fall back on our own policies, and if we are confident in our own ideas, we have nothing to fear from such a debate. If that exchange of ideas reveals room for working together on practical issues – such as in the recent cooperation between the Liberal Democrats and backbench Labour MPs to secure mandatory corporate reporting on carbon reduction – surely that can only be a good thing. So I very much hope that Liberal Democrats can engage in an open-minded discussion with those in and around Compass, partly along the lines suggested by Lawson and Harris, but also by putting forward our own proposals.