Britain is deeply divided. The harsh economic realities of Brexit are beginning to be known. Years of austerity have weakened the public sector. Personal debt levels are out of control, while the financial sector appears to have failed to learn the lessons of the 2008 crisis. Even workers at McDonald's are going on strike. There is growing inequality across the country.
Vince Cable, during one of his first major speeches as Liberal Democrat leader, stated that he wanted to reduce the inequality within British society. He highlighted the need for wealth to be taxed fairly; regardless of assets inflation or unearned income. If the Liberal Democrats are to challenge inequality then they need to reach out to working class communities, something that the party has recently been reluctant to do.
There was once a proud working class tradition within British liberalism stretching all the way back to the days of William Gladstone. The first working class MPs were Liberal affiliated trade unionists. The Liberals legalised trade unions in 1871 and legitimised collective bargaining rights in 1906. There continued to be strong pockets of working class support for the Liberal Party well into the middle of the 20th century, especially in places such as the seaside towns and mill towns of Lancashire.
The link between British liberalism and the working class movement has been lost but it must not be consigned to the pages of history. The campaign for tackling inequality cannot just be left to the leafy suburbs or to the intellectual middle classes. Liberal Democrats must rekindle their working class support and forge links with the trade unions. A strong message is needed on protecting public services, undoing disastrous welfare cuts and taxing the unearned wealth of the wealthiest. The party should also recommit to introducing a land value tax.
If the Liberal Democrats want to regain trust after the years in coalition with the Conservatives then it will have to develop a strong critique of austerity. The party has already begun to do this. At the general election the party was committed to reversing more welfare cuts than even the Labour Party. Austerity has been a sustained assault on public services and public sector workers. If the party is to regain credibility it must commit to reversing many of the cuts to the public sector, not least those to the budgets of local government and schools, which have been cut to the bone over recent years.
It's not enough for Liberals to be on the side of public services, they must promote a different model of labour relations to the antagonistic one supported by Labour and the Conservatives. British Liberals have long held the belief that workers and management should be brought closer together. The time has come to put workers on company boards. It is essential that the government legislates to ensure that worker representatives have a place at the top table. While Labour is seen as the party of the workers and the Tories the party of the bosses, the Liberal Democrats must be the party to bridge the class divide. This doesn't just mean sharing wealth and opportunity but also power and decision making.
Regardless of how different parts of the country voted in the EU referendum in June 2016, Brexit will hit working class communities hard. Brexit fuelled food inflation is undermining already fragile living standards. It is currently unclear whether the Government will commit to maintaining EU levels of regional development funding for deprived parts of the country post-Brexit. Will EU guaranteed workers’ rights and social protections be safe under a Tory Party flirting with the idea of having Jacob Rees-Mogg as its next leader? Brexit-scepticism will only grow as it becomes clearer how Brexit will make Britain poorer.
Britain's social contract is broken. It can only be fixed by delivering wealth, power, hope and opportunity to those communities who have been “left behind” and who haven’t benefited from decades of globalisation. If the Liberal Democrats are to fulfil Vince Cable's vision of reducing inequality, then liberalism will need to revive its brand of working class politics; putting workers on company boards, defending public services and increasing taxes on the assets of the wealthiest.
The Liberal Democrats must reclaim their voice in working class communities and reach out to those people who most need social justice. Vince Cable must rise to this challenge.