Dear fellow Social Liberal,
Instead of talking about securing Liberal Democrat electoral successes, I wanted to use this New Year’s message to talk about the importance of the task we face in securing the UK’s place in the European Union.
2016 could bring us an in-out referendum. The leave campaign is storming ahead. They are well funded, focused and are feeding the tabloids, The Telegraph and The Times, with daily EU scare stories.
Last week I tried to focus three months' growing frustration at the lack of focus (or focus) from a Liberal Democrat party still shell-shocked from its May cataclysm. It ended up, half-jokingly, being a parody of a tired party campaign-by-numbers format: the 'Six to Fix'. As so often with such a device, I quickly realised, it missed the point. It doesn't matter if you fix the internals of the engine if the thing doesn't move.
The three months have coincided with a bigger challenge I had set myself. While I had just about held onto my party membership under Clegg, unlike many other social liberals, I had cancelled my direct debit. So any actual renewal involved positive physical effort. My membership was due in September. Three months on, and such is the chaos in the party HQ operation (one of the six) that it hasn't even emailed out a reminder. After Syria, I am a lot less likely to renew, although the Federal Policy Committee's deliberations and adoption of a motion I authored has tempered the position somewhat.
It is as much about the political as the moral judgment. The Syria vote was for Parliamentarians an exercise in voting for people to be killed - whichever way you voted. The most difficult choice of all. However, it is one of a set of recent decisions (I will not repeat what I've previously written) in which positioning appears to have triumphed over a Liberal analysis of the issues at hand. And in the politics of 2015, when trying not to upset anyone is neither realistic nor attainable as a political strategy, second-guessing your opponents is a strange response to an existential threat to your party caused by a failure to connect with the electorate.
I don't believe those tests have been satisfied and here is why:
The central claim of the Chancellor’s much-anticipated spending review was that it would deliver economic security. Much of the debate since those opening remarks has focussed on his u-turn over tax credit changes, and on the dire response by John McDonnell that saw Mao's Little Red Book racing towards an increasingly amused George Osborne.
It is that central claim, though, which is of the greatest interest to liberals - that in Osborne's view, the key to achieving economic security for a country lies in having not even a balanced budget, but in fact a surplus; a rare event for the UK economy since the 1980s. That surplus, he argues, provides for a buffer against the inevitable day on which the UK economy enters recession once more. The problem with this argument is that there's increasing evidence that the resilience of an economy owes less to public debt than it does to private debt.
After George Osborne’s Autumn statement, Prateek Buch gives the Social Liberal Forum’s response.
The Chancellor’s Autumn statement made this Tory government’s priorities clear: achieving a budget surplus matters far more than avoiding a crisis in social care and further education. Osborne's obsession with rolling back the state is weakening the very foundations of the economy he is claiming he wants to fix.
The Social Liberal Forum welcomes the belated U-turn on tax credits, which Tim Farron and Liberal Democrats peers were right to call for. But, as is nearly always the case with this Chancellor, the devil is in the detail. Despite Osborne’s claim to have ‘listened', families on universal credit will still lose out. As such, millions more will lose out once Universal Credit is rolled out nationwide. This will cause unacceptable damage to the living standards of some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
The General election of 2015 in the UK has variously been described as ‘the death of liberalism’ or ‘the death of the Labour party’ and so on. Might it not be better, more accurate too, simply to refer to it as The Death of Politics – certainly for a decade or so to come?
This is a guest post from Peter Sloman who is a lecturer in British politics at the University of Cambridge.
I read Simon Radford’s series of articles on liberal economics after the crash with a mixture of agreement and frustration, so I am grateful for the opportunity to respond with some historical reflections. Simon’s clarion-call for the Liberal Democrats to re-engage with economic theory is persuasive and well-timed: I could not agree more that,
"the opening up of economic debate post-2008 has given liberals an opportunity to unearth the liberal tradition in economics and assert its relevance, both for economics as a field, and for a voting public starving for a new progressive vision."
Yet the notion that there is a single liberal tradition in economics is as problematic coming from Simon on the post-Keynesian left as it is coming from David Laws in The Orange Book. If liberalism is at root a political movement, seeking ‘to provide the greatest possible array of capabilities and opportunities to everyone’, we should not be surprised that British liberals have drawn on a wide range of theoretical perspectives. Rightly or wrongly, the Liberal Party has consistently sought to hold the ‘orthodoxy’ of (neo)classical economics and the heterodoxy of figures such as Henry George, J. A. Hobson, and John Maynard Keynes in a kind of creative tension.
Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel at a fringe meeting in Brighton at the Labour Party conference. Organised by Compass, the theme was Building progressive alliances for a new economy. The main thrust of what I spoke about is below, but I thought it might make for an interesting blog post to share some of my thoughts about the conference and the mood in the room.
As I pitched up in Brighton, it felt like any other Lib Dem conference I'd attended. There were lots of people walking around with lanyards, rushing to the next fringe meeting, or propping up the Metropole's bar. There were journalists, famous political faces from now and days gone by, and plenty of eager young charity execs trying to thrust flyers in to the hands of hungover delegates.
Rejoice! After nine long years as one of those formerly derided as a 'trot' at federal party conference by a Special Advisor to Nick Clegg, I awake today ahead of conference to find I can come in from the cold. No longer are we progressive, lefty lib dems to be derided as wet socialists - indeed we can look forward to a bright future in a party that appears to be making an opportunistic volte face in the light of Corbynmania.