The Social Liberal Forum (SLF) has a meeting at York ‘After the shambles what is to be done?’ The Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael is kicking off the discussion and I am told he has robust views. If the debate to date is a guide it runs the risk of being conducted in an endless stream of clichés: heads must roll, people must fall on their swords, difficult conversations have to be had….I understand and share the anger. There were mistakes and our party underperformed. I know significant changes must be made at both an operational and political level but I do not intend to dwell on the operational issues in this article.
What is to be done? The place to begin is with the ideas, the values and the principles -the strategy will follow. There are three big issues that urgently need our attention: Britain’s role and purpose on the world stage, the Climate Emergency and the maldistribution of wealth and power in our society.
We are faced with another five years of Conservative rule. This is not the party of Major, MacMillan, Maudling or even Baldwin. This is a ruthlessly ideological group who owe more to the American Republican right with their culture wars and crude nationalism than to One Nation Conservatism. In the face of that challenge we cannot sit on the side-lines.
The belief in a rules based international order where war is replaced by law is genuinely under threat. Putin, America First and a new major economic power in China none of whom play by the rules threatens peace. Our isolation since Brexit removes our influence and our ability to champion Liberal values.
2020 marks the sixtieth anniversary of a key moment in the history of the Liberal Party. It took place at the Liberal Assembly when there was, what one historian has described as, a ‘rout’ of the extreme free marketeers, the likes of Oliver Smedley, Arthur Selsdon and S W Alexander. Many of these folk went on to set the Institute of Economic Affairs and to provide intellectual succour for Thatcherism. Grimond chose to break them and membership of European Common Market was his tool. The party believed that political integration across Europe was intrinsically desirable. The Radical Reform Group (RRG), the SLF of its day, played a key part in combatting the anti-European free market ideas of the Smedleyites. William Wallace pointed out in a letter to The Journal of Liberal History how the activities of the RRG were important in assisting Grimond in re-orientating the party. RRG provided a coherent alternative definition of Liberalism which was much closer to the radical Liberal tradition. Their members’ instincts were antiauthoritarian and socially egalitarian. The lesson I take from that episode is the need for a progressive leader and an active social liberal group in the party. A small party will always be prey to a well-funded group of individuals. You may be able to think of others who fit that pattern?
I digress, the point I want to make is that Liberal Democrats should not resign from the belief that our place is within the integrated and democratic Europe. It is only in that context that we can effectively influence policy on the environment, peace and security, economic reform-particularly in relation to multinational tech giants- and much else besides. Whether it is Gladstone declaring our place was at the heart of the concert of Europe or Grimond championing decolonisation, and the abandonment of the so-called independent nuclear deterrent, Liberals have opposed the nationalism that warps policy and leads to Suez and Brexit. It is not Britain First that will provide peace, prosperity and sustainability rather it is by breaking down the barriers between nation states.
The planet is ablaze. The science on climate change is clear. We need to act now. Not just nationally but internationally. I am far from convinced that we have won the argument at home. We are all guilty of believing that everyone thinks like us. We mix with folk we agree with us and often have little to do with others who see green measures as a cloak for tax rises and job losses which would undermine their security. We need to cooperate with everyone who accepts the science to win the argument and to make the essential change now. There is no room for a tribal approach to this issue, the key to success is co-operation.
The third issue which should be at the heart of the current debate is the maldistribution of wealth and power. Liberal Democrats have always been good at laying out a programme for breaking up the concentration of political power: a written federal constitution with entrenched civil rights, home rule all round, enhanced local government, abolition of the House of Lords, Freedom of information, electoral reform etc. It is a sign of how far we have yet to travel that the one candidate trying to become the Leader of the Labour Party who endorsed such a programme could not even get himself nominated to go on the ballot paper. Notwithstanding the difficulties we must continue to promote this agenda. The way we are governed is at the heart of why we are, as a group of nations and regions, dysfunctional. The winner takes all mentality, the lack of respect for dissent, seeing compromise as failure, short-termism and the exclusion of many of our citizen from participation in the decisions that impact on their lives is at the heart of our malaise.
Very often when well-meaning people are advocating ‘progressive alliances’ they rather patronisingly assume that all we bring to the party is the package of constitutional reform. I disagree. It is also in our approach to economics that we can make a major contribution.
I am not talking about the libertarian, minimum state, extreme free marketeers who visit their misery on the party from time to time. I am talking about what the academic *Stuart White has called Alternative Liberalism. Writing on the Open Democracy website White argues that ‘The rich tradition of alternative liberalism has much to offer by way of solutions to inexorably widening inequality’. I would quibble with this tradition being other than mainstream, but after the coalition years where it appears to many that the poorest were punished for the financial crash, I understand why that might not be entirely obvious to those observing us. The tradition goes back to JS Mill who advocated ‘co-operative production’, employee ownership in today’s language, as one of the ‘two great changes that will regenerate society’. The other was the emancipation of women. The ideas of profit sharing, co-ownership, workers’ co-operatives reverberate down the decades. They can be found in the Yellow Book 1928, they are central to the Ownership for All campaign started by the Young Liberals in the 1920s which continued for most of the remainder of the 20th century. Jo Grimond was amongst the greatest advocates. David Steel’s book Partners for Progress anticipates the impact of technology on skilled workers and argues for a substantial part of an employee’s income coming from profit sharing rather than wages. The book also contains an essay from the Nobel prize winning economist James Meade (who used to advise our party) with inventive ideas to break up large concentration of income and wealth which perpetuate class distinctions.
Paddy Ashdown’s book Citizen’s’ Britain, discusses Universal Basic Income(UBI), participatory democracy, universal share ownership, and stakeholder capitalism and forms part of the Alternative Liberal tradition. Liberal policy documents advocate-reform of inheritance taxation, land tax etc. They also proposed universal inheritance schemes. I understand the Women’s Liberal Federation had a fully worked up UBI Scheme in the early 1940’s which some may have seen as an alternative to Beveridge’s model based as it was on male-breadwinner assumptions.
Grimond, in his promotion of the strategy of realignment of the left, speculated that co-operation with Labour could be based around ideas of workers’ ownership and workplace democracy which he rather provocatively aligned with syndicalism.
I joined the Liberal Party over 50 years ago. I have never seen Labour as a viable vehicle for the ‘widest possible distribution of wealth and power’. I joined in the aftermath of the Commonwealth Immigration Act an openly racist piece of legislation. I remember the Young Liberal campaign-Labour washes whiter. I do not need people to point out to me the nature of the Labour Party. I have lived and worked on Merseyside all my adult life. I understand what drove Luciana Berger, Jane Kennedy and Louise Elman from that Party. I have sat in our Council chamber and had to listen to Labour Councillors rant on about Class War and dismiss great tracts of Labour’s finest achievements as ‘before JC’. The same is true on the Labour Right. The 2010 austerity manifesto has been erased from their history and has there been a worse triumvirate of Home Secretaries than Blunkett, Straw and Reid? Their socially conservative and authoritarian instincts gave us policies like the cruel and futile war on drugs, ninety days detention without trial, mass snooping on internet communication and red mugs with slogans about immigration. Added to that there is the anti-Europeanism and the support for the Iraq war.
Electing Kier Starmer as leader will not rescued Labour. Across Europe social democratic parties are in decline. If the 21st century is to be a progressive era then we need a new alignment in politics, a new alliance of radical ideas, people and campaigns.
We are part of a different strand in politics which David Marquand has argued is based on ‘republican self-respect as opposed to monarchical servility, engaged civic activity versus slothful private apathy, and government by challenge and discussion rather than deference or conformism.'
I have outlined the key issues that need our immediate attention: the climate emergency, Britain’s role in the world and the widest possible distribution of wealth and power. None of this is possible if political tribalism amongst non-conservative citizens persists. If we advocate co-operation between nations and if we understand that the climate emergency requires cooperation it follows that the strategy to achieve those ends must also be co-operative. Notwithstanding all the difficulties it would be a failure of politics if we did not seriously set about forming those new alliances. Central to this approach must be a commitment to constitutional reform and specifically electoral reform. Without voting reform first past the post will deliver decade after decade of parliamentary majorities for the Conservative party and every five years we will hold a meeting to discuss ‘What is to be done after the shambles?’
*Stuart Whites article can be found at: https://www.opendemocra cy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/alternative-liberal-solutions-to-economic-inequality .
Alternatively you could read his essay in the Social Liberal Forum’s essay collections available from https://www.socialliberal.net/
Iain Brodie Browne is a Councillor, first elected in 1984, and Chairs the Social Liberal Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity/
This article first appeared in the February 2020 (issue 399) edition of Liberator, which is available from https://liberatormagazine.org.uk/en/