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332 – Reconnecting with our radical heritage
27 March 2009 (12:48:47)

Matthew Sowemimo explains why the Social Liberal Forum has been created and why it has been launched now

Social Liberalism is the mainstream philosophy of the Liberal Democrats and has been so since the Grimond era. Social liberalism recognises that an individual’s material and personal circumstances can act as a constraint on them realising freedom. How meaningful is freedom if you don’t have a house or a pension? This core Social Liberal analysis is as relevant to today’s world as it was to the Edwardian era.

While political freedoms such as freedom of speech are crucial, poverty, inherited disadvantage and in today’s world, climate change, can curtail freedom. Lloyd George preceded his challenge to the landed aristocracy with the damning phrase that “a nation that ruled the waves could not even flush its own sewers.” Liberals have used state action to challenge disadvantages that prevent individuals realising their full potential. As Nick Clegg has said, “freedom and liberty mean nothing unless the barriers to progress and opportunity are removed.”

Beveridge provided the intellectual underpinnings for a welfare state that brought about significant improvements in life expectancy and quality of life for many Britons. The call for state intervention to give disabled people full civil rights in the high street and the workplace did not come from some Fabian elite but from the grassroots. It came from people who had been dismissed from employment and who could not cross the threshold of the local supermarket.

The state can play a role as an enabler and can break up concentrations of power and wealth essential for expanding life chances. But a call for renewed state action does not mean an embrace of the forms of intervention favoured by Crosland, Brown and Blunkett. The state of 2009 is centralist, insensitive and unresponsive.

Despite record funding, our public services remain stubbornly unresponsive. All the consultation documents in the world do not amount to a genuine voice for citizens in the planning of key services like health care. Liberal Democrats need to refashion and reinvent the state and not simply through decentralisation.

For example, will citizens have a stronger voice in shaping decisions about schools and hospitals if they are given social and economic rights, enshrined in a written constitution? Campaigners used South Africa’s constitutional entitlement of ‘the right to health’ to force Thabo Mbeki to overturn his ban on the funding of HIV drugs. Defining clear rights in these areas should also be part of the debate.

But why the Forum and why now?

Social Liberalism speaks powerfully to the needs of our times. This is an age when we survey the ruins of insolvent financial institutions bequeathed to us by the abdication of regulation. Across the world, existing divisions over ethnicity, religion or caste are being intensified by poverty and the advance of climate change. Equality is now not just a moral imperative but is essential for the quality of life of people across the social spectrum.

Economies like South Africa and Brazil are the real growth engines for the world economy in the future but they are being held back by the inequalities within their borders.

I am diminished if the child down the road is underachieving at school and leaves school with inadequate qualifications. If a woman in Salford is paid less for her work than a male colleague doing the same job, our taxes will end up paying for her retirement. How can we compete in the world economy when working class children born at the millennium are already falling behind their less academically able middle class peers?

Richard Wilkinson’s new publication, The Spirit Level, has provided powerful evidence that unequal societies like Britain diminish the quality of life available to people across the social spectrum. For example, Wilkinson found that even in an area that is closely associated with working class disadvantage – achievement at school – more equal societies see higher levels of literacy among the children even of better educated families. He demonstrates how inequality hits the quality of life across the whole community in areas ranging from trust in your neighbours to homicide. Wilkinson’s findings should chasten those who believe that the affluent can insulate themselves from the consequences of deprivation elsewhere in our society.

So while there is a compelling case for a reinvigorated national and international effort to achieve equality, can Liberal Democrats generate the electoral support to make this possible? Some people have suggested that we have now reached the limits of public support for redistribution of wealth and opportunity. I disagree. When voters are shown the impact that successful anti-poverty policies can have, they rally in support of equality.

The banking crisis represents a major strategic moment for the centre left. Margaret Thatcher exploited the IMF crisis and the Winter of Discontent to press her case for free market policies and possessive individualism. The banking crisis demonstrates that free markets do not inherently serve the public interest. In this recession, both middle and working class people share economic insecurity and will look to the state to provide them with social protection. President Obama is taking advantage of this climate in the United States to push forward with the biggest expansion of the federal government since the New Deal.

And Social Liberalism is indispensable for our electoral coalition. Labour voters put us over the top in a series of seats won from the Conservatives in 1997 and 2001. We now represent a swathe of seats in university towns where middle class Labour voters were won over by our policy on tuition fees and our uncompromising internationalism on Iraq.

The Social Liberal Forum was formed in order to generate debate within the party and beyond. Our title is not accidental. We don’t exist simply to promote some pre-defined policy agenda. We want to engage with party members across the country. That’s why we have started the Ideas Factory on our website. A liberal party needs open debate.

There are some really big questions for our party to consider as we formulate our manifesto and beyond:

  • Can we break the cycle of inherited disadvantage by investing in education alone? Will an emphasis on education be distinctive enough to counter David Cameron’s Conservatives?
  • If we are serious about hitting the 2002 child poverty target, and we reject means-testing, what does that mean for child benefit?
  • Who are the poorest in our society and what are the policy interventions that will help them?
  • While worklessness is a key driver of poverty, free marketers should recognise that work that delivers low pay and limited progression can also entrench poverty, particularly for women.
  • How can we develop a framework where business meets its social and environmental obligations and maintain competitiveness?

One hundred years on from the People’s Budget, the inequalities in life chances in today’s Britain demand that we reconnect with our radical heritage. Throughout our party’s history – whether it be honouring moral obligations to the Hong Kong Chinese; Kosovo; or upholding international law on Iraq – where we have shown leadership and moral clarity, we have been rewarded.

Dr Matthew Sowemimo is Director of the Social Liberal Forum. Website: http://socialliberal.net

This article has been republished on the Social Liberal Forum website here, where it is open for comment. The companion article in Liberator 332 by David Boyle has also been republished here and is likewise available for comment, as is a reply by Richard Grayson.

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