After the Election: The Way Forward for Liberalism

By Ian Kearns

It would be easy in the wake of last December’s crushing election defeat for social liberals to be down-hearted and to focus only on what went wrong. There are certainly serious questions to be asked with regard to national strategy, seat targeting, content and tone of the Liberal Democrat campaign. The social liberal narrative was drowned out by Brexit and an incoherent mix of tactical manoeuvres aimed, primarily it seems, at attracting votes from the right rather than overwhelming the Tories in target seats with a progressive alliance constructed on the centre-left.

Some of the operational questions that need answers will no doubt be dealt with in the party’s official election review. But as we turn to the future, as we must, the political ones fall to all of us to resolve. The SLF intends to play a full part in the work that needs to be done. And as we embark on that work, we intend to be guided by three simple propositions.

First, that we must never again allow the rich tradition of social liberalism, that of Lloyd George, Beveridge, Keynes, Grimond and Paddy Ashdown, to be marginalised in Liberal Democrat identity and strategy when its rightful place is at the heart of things, furnishing the party, and any other that shares our values, with a coherent, non-socialist but identifiably progressive alternative to Conservatism. It is time to re-discover the radical commitment to a Britain of empowered citizens and to champion that cause against the citadels of unaccountable, over concentrated and establishment power. To do that, we must develop a visionary and unifying social liberal narrative about the future of this country that resonates across nations, races, regions, genders and social classes.

Second, we must focus on responding to the technological revolution, environmental emergency, and geopolitical transformation defining the age. Automation and robotics are transforming our relationship with the world of work. Public data is being harvested for private profit on a massive scale. Our democracy is being undermined by huge inequality and the dissemination of fake news. Bio-diversity collapse is accelerating and the world is doing nowhere near enough to limit global warming to less than the 2℃ envisaged by the Paris agreement. On the international stage, the president of the United States is abandoning the liberal order and a new illiberal superpower, China, is perfecting a high-tech form of mass surveillance and control at home and exporting it abroad. At the same time, huge new opportunities are opening up to empower citizens, promote and preserve human health, fight crime, deliver education, re-invent agriculture and re-imagine and re-engineer the infrastructure and buildings in the towns and cities where most of us live. An old state and economy are dying before our eyes. New ones must be born. The choice in front of us is not between status quo and change but between visions of change.

Third, and for precisely that reason, tinkering at the edges of reform is no longer going to be enough. We must recognise that it is time for new thinking; time for intellectual ferment; time for bold ideas; time to face, and reckon with the implications, opportunities and challenges not just of the next 5 years but of the next 15 years at least.

That is why the Social Liberal Forum is embarking on a new programme of work. Over the months and years ahead, we intend to conduct and publish research, host events and stimulate the debates necessary to re-think social liberalism for a world transformed. We have started at this Spring Conference. We invite you to help us continue at the SLF Annual Conference in London on 18th July, 2020, where our theme will be Liberal Britain 2035: Health, Wealth and Power.

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