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.
The almost impossible has happened. The left wing rebel MP, Jeremy Corbyn, has been elected to lead the Labour Party. From being an absolute outsider, Corbyn has seen a huge surge in support over recent weeks that has been so great, that he won Labour’s leadership election in the first round. Labour now has its most left wing leader since Michael Foot. Despite Tony Blair’s ability to win elections, he failed to provide many people with hope or social justice. It’s this disillusionment and mistrust of Blairism that fuelled Corbyn’s victory. But how should the Liberal Democrats respond to the Corbyn victory?
If Corbyn is successful in moving Labour to the left, it’ll be the first time in a generation that the entire Liberal Democrats are less left wing than the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats are not a socialist party, we are a liberal party. The distinctive philosophies of democratic socialism and social liberalism will naturally find areas of both agreement and conflict. Liberal Democrats must oppose some of Corbyn’s more left wing policies such as leaving NATO, re-nationalising the energy companies and re-opening the coal mines. In addition, there is some doubt as to whether Corbyn is a pro-European or whether he harbours some of the Euroscepticism of the traditional Old Labour Party.
By Nigel Dower
The following essay forms part of the book “Unlocking Liberalism”, edited by Robert Brown, Gillian Gloyer and Nigel Lindsay. The author has kindly given permission for the Social Liberal Forum to reproduce it here.
In the chapter I defend a version of liberalism which is similar to the ‘new liberalism’ of the early twentieth century of T. H. Green and L. T. Hobhouse, sometimes called social liberalism, liberal socialism or welfare liberalism. It also owes a lot to the ideas of two more modern ‘liberal’ thinkers, namely John Rawls and Amartya Sen. As such it is in broad contrast to the old or classical liberalism of the 19th Century which stressed laissez faire and the minimal state, and also to a modern influential version of liberalism called libertarianism or neo-liberalism which in some respects harks back to the earlier classical liberalism. The guiding question for me is: what makes liberty valuable? The answer put simply is that whilst it is good to have liberty in the sense of not being prevented from doing certain things, what makes it really valuable is one being able to exercise one’s liberty or exercise it properly; that is, it is in large measure valuable if the conditions are in place for the effective exercise of liberty. For instance, it is one thing to have free speech (e.g. there is no law preventing one from speaking one’s mind), it is another to be able to exercise it articulately because one has had a reasonable education. It is one thing to be free to pursue whatever hobbies one wants to (e.g. public opinion or social conventions do not make it difficult), it is another to have sufficient resources to be able to pursue interesting hobbies. For these conditions to exist for everyone in society, many things need to be in place – certain political and legal institutions, the provision of education, access to health care and various forms of social protection. For these to be in place there needs to a general commitment to social justice. Furthermore, in the modern world, if this conception of liberalism is accepted, it has serious implications for any society in the rest of the world and also to future generations who will need the conditions of liberty in place for them too. The idea of liberalism as ‘social liberalism’ does not strictly entail it, but in fact, I shall argue later in the chapter, liberalism needs to be cosmopolitan and committed to sustainability.
What follows is largely a personal exploration of what liberalism means to me today: it does not pretend to be an authoritative analysis of what diffferent liberals today may say, let alone map onto actual Libdem policies.
The Social Liberal Forum warmly welcomes the new Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron MP.
Throughout the leadership race, Tim showed his concern for social justice and for ours to be a campaigning Party. We are looking forward to working with him as the head of a progressive movement fighting for liberty, equality and community.
On Wednesday, George Osborne delivered the first Conservative only budget for almost two decades. The budget had many true blue Conservative policies in it on welfare and taxation; as well as a so-called "national living wage". Above all else this budget represented an attack on some of the most vulnerable in society. This budget will do much to undermine the welfare state of William Beveridge.
The £12 billion welfare cuts that Osborne is imposing will undermine social justice. They represent an ideological attack which will further divide the country between rich and poor. Two years ago, I wrote a blog for the SLF criticising the benefits increase cap of 1%, the Tories will now freeze most working age benefits preventing any rise from 2016 until 2020. This will result in a real terms cut as inflation increases.
Annual Beveridge Lecture delivered by Claire Tyler at the Social Liberal Forum Conference - 4 July 2015
May I start by saying what a great honour it is to have been asked to deliver this year’s Beveridge Lecture. I’m conscious that I’m following in some rather illustrious footsteps – Nick, Steve and Tim have all stood here before me – Tim – you set the bar very high indeed in your excellent and wide ranging lecture last year.
I think it is entirely appropriate to be revisting Beveridge at a conference entitled ‘Rebooting Liberalism’. It’s neither regressive nor intellectually lazy to be looking to the past as we seek to move forward. Far from it - we are fortunate to have an incredibly strong intellectual tradition within the party and in seeking to both clarify and communicate exactly what we stand for, we could do much worse than draw on the ground-breaking work of one of the grandfathers of modern Liberalism.
Because, for me, one of the clear lessons from General Election is that, for the public to understand what we really stand for and what our purpose in politics is, we have to spell out much more clearly what being liberal means, both the sort of society we are seeking to create and the notion of individual empowerment – in short our values – and that’s where I am going to start today. We need to be braver in saying that a philosophical focus on the freedom of the individual isn’t the same as being pre-occupied with self or insularity. On the contrary it’s about enabling every single member of society to flourish and reach out to each other, strengthening social relationships and communities, demonstrating fairness and compassion towards others, rejoicing in difference and diversity and, at the same time, extending individual freedoms. In fact, I think we’ve already done a pretty good job of distilling our beliefs into three key words – liberty, equality and community – the very first line of the preamble to our constitution.