By James Graham
I am delighted to announce that, as of this week, I am coming back to the fold of the Social Liberal Forum as its Head of Political Strategy.
For those who don’t know, alongside Richard Grayson and Matthew Sowemimo, I was part of the original troika which set up the SLF and served on its executive until September last year when I resigned to focus on my day job.
If I’ve been a little hesitant to come back, it has been because I’ve been so impressed with what the SLF has achieved over the past year due to the sterling efforts of the team which Mark Blackburn, David Hall-Matthews and Evan Harris built around them. SLF has ten times the members it had when I left, has held a successful conference, has lead a high profile campaign (on the NHS), has branches in most regions around the country and has just orchestrated its most ambitious conference programme yet. For a team of unpaid volunteers, that’s impressive work. I don’t mind admitting that the prospect of living up to that record is quite daunting. Thankfully, SLF team isn’t going anywhere.
What I’ll be focusing on over the next few months is developing our political strategy with a view of ensuring that we get balance right between reacting to events and setting the agenda. For a small group of volunteers, this is quite challenging. The SLF Council had a very productive meeting this weekend in which we went through all the top policy areas we need to be working on; it should surprise no-one to learn that the list is much longer than we can ever hope to achieve. We are going to have to pick our issues carefully to avoid getting lost.
Top of our list however was the economy. Prateek Buch has already done sterling work on what he calls our “Plan C” (and what Vince Cable prefers to call Plan A-Plus). Regardless of your view about the coalition’s macroeconomic policy, the fact remains that the global situation is much worse than it looked a year ago. There is no shame in admitting that many parts of it are worth revisiting.
Compass and a group of other organisations has just unveiled its “Plan B“. The SLF is not a part of that coalition, but we very much welcome the debate we hope it will kickstart and intend to participate in it.
One thing that won’t be changing is the SLF’s support for the coalition – and in particular the coalition agreement. That doesn’t mean we won’t be critical of the government, especially when (as in the case of NHS reform) it intends to go down a path that the two parties did not agree on during the coalition talks. But it does mean we will be forthright in our support for the Lib Dems’ decision to enter the coalition, and we will be sympathetic to the dilemmas that coalition inevitably puts our parliamentarians in.
It is a challenging time and the Lib Dems have an absolutely crucial role in keeping the Tory hard right at bay and negotiating a viable alternative. What is clear is that Labour currently have nothing to offer. On health, they have been ineffectual – it is nothing short of a national scandal that Ed Miliband kept an underperforming John Healey in place for as long as he did – and on the economy they have not fared much better. But that should be a matter of regret; a strong opposition is crucial for accountable government. Labour’s drift towards authoritarian populism over the past year has ultimately only helped the Tory right in blocking much needed reforms on civil liberties and the constitution. That is a shameful record for a party leader who stood on a platform of making the Labour Party more liberal.
It is clear that a robust social liberal voice has never been more important. We’d be very interested to hear what you think we should be focusing on; please leave your comments below.
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