The Social Liberal Forum campaigns for policies that promote social justice and to narrow gaps in opportunity and power between the rich and poor, as a way of freeing society from poverty, ignorance and conformity. As we launch this new blog today, and reflect on the future of social liberalism, we begin by exploring how our values can translate into effective policy.
Last week Nick Clegg wrote that the Liberal Democrats will remain firmly in the centre ground of British politics, in the face of a Tory and Labour exodus to their preferred comfort zones. Speaking personally, there was much to agree with in Nick’s post but much also that troubled me; overall it left me with a familiar unease about how the Liberal Democrats will approach the remaining months of this Coalition.
Superficially, sticking to the centre makes perfect sense, if it means rejecting dogma in favour of pragmatism. It only works, however, if we have a clear idea of where the centre is. If we define the centre of political gravity as being equidistant from two other parties then we risk being defined by those we disagree with. Nick insists this isn’t the case (“It is not – as it can sound – splitting the difference between competing views”), but our record in power says otherwise far too often. Centrism of this sort allowed Nick himself to reason that (I paraphrase) ‘because Labour and the Tories support secret courts, we might as well do so, as long as we secure some safeguards.’ Centrism in this case placed us in between two illiberal parties, violating liberal principles in the name of not tacking one way or another.
A further risk emerges. Focussing on moderating the extreme tendencies in Tory and Labour camps could mean forgoing opportunities to radically alter the terms of debate and policy. The failure to take real action on the harms caused by drugs, the unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS while health challenges remain unsolved, lukewarm reforms to banking and the lack of progress in re-balancing the economy stem from our self-inflicted lack of imagination. What’s needed is a liberalism rooted in our values, embodied in our constitution’s preamble, which should be the starting point for coherent policies that bring us closer to the society we envision.
It is this that makes me most uncomfortable with Nick’s call to rally around the centre – that by defining ourselves first and foremost as a party of the centre, we forget what politics and governance should be about: setting out our values, proposing policies that reflect those values, and learning from experience and evidence how to implement them. Abandoning that process because the policies it throws up chimes more with one party’s views than the other means we forget why we seek to govern, whether locally or nationally: to move society close to what is set out in our constitution. Yes, in coalition we may not always get our way, and compromise is necessary – but being the only liberal political movement in the UK, we should aim to be more than a barnacle on the hull of other political ships.
There is no space to set out in detail what our values ought to be here, but in subsequent posts I hope contributors will add to the discussion in the spirit of Alex Wilcock’s “what the Liberal Democrats stand for” meme. My own contribution to #LibDemValues is a reminder for the party not to turn its back on social liberalism despite the siren call of the centre ground, and begins with the following statement, to be expanded upon in subsequent posts: We believe the political economy should empower all citizens with the capability to secure for themselves the freedom and means to live fulfilling lives free from poverty, ignorance and conformity – and that where it falls short, we should promote social justice and tackle barriers of inequality in wealth, voice and power. We will host a discussion around economic policy over on our new blog dedicated to social liberal economics, PlanC.socialliberal.net, and there will of course be a full an open debate on ownership, democracy and power, at the SLF Conference in Manchester on July 13th – here, we will focus on the wider politics of social liberalism.
If our values remain timeless, the policies we support to put them into action will necessarily vary over time – over the course of history we may find ourselves closer to or further away from the (social) liberal ideal set out above. The test of our values, and our credibility to deliver policies that match them, comes when faced with scenarios like today – coalition with a party whose philosophy we are at odds with, at a time of great economic peril. Do we argue convincingly and passionately for policies that create the political economy sketched above, or do we simply tinker with policies that take us further away, as long as they’re fairer than without said tinkering? Nick’s position as the “voice of fairness within Government” supposes that we should be happy with the latter – the unease within the party and beyond at our record in power to date suggests otherwise.
Putting social liberal values into action will not be easy, but we have to rise to the challenge – nothing less than the future of British liberalism is at stake.